Les Claypool: Exclusive interview with Primus bassist

Photographer: Press photo/ Illustration by Michael Yoder

Legendary bassist Les Claypool talks candy and crooning as the Primus & the Chocolate Factory tour comes to Hershey

 

If not for a business competitor in elementary school, the world may never have heard the legendary musical talents of Les Claypool. Instead, he may have decided to open his own chocolate factory.

The year was 1971, and Claypool was a 7-year-old youngster running around the streets of El Sobrante, Ca., when he saw a film that would have a major influence on his life – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Taken aback by the psychedelic visuals and the hypnotizing Oscar-nominated soundtrack, the young Claypool became obsessed with the film, mailing away Cap’n Crunch cereal box tops to score the Willy Wonka Candy Factory Kit. He used the plastic molds to make Oompa-Loompa dark-chocolate figurines, which he sold to his schoolmates.

However, Claypool says his working-class family of auto mechanics was too cheap to buy the more expensive (and more desirable) milk chocolate chips to make the candy bars, and he was put out of business when a fellow classmate named Ronald Libby started making milk chocolate Oompa-Loompas. Claypool’s passion was forced into other pursuits.

Ultimately it was the bass guitar that would become Claypool’s primary passion, forming the seminal alternative rock band Primus in 1984. His distinct bass playing style that combines slapping, tapping, whammy bar and flamenco revolutionized the instrument, and he has long been considered one of the greatest bass players on the planet.

Throughout the ’90s, Primus’ albums made a major impact on the alternative rock scene, creating hits like “Jerry was a Race Car Driver” from the album Sailing the Seas of Cheese and “My Name is Mud” from the album Pork Soda. The band was also asked to create the theme song for Comedy Central’s South Park in 1997, which is still used on the show.

<<WHALE TALE: Les Claypool regaled us with his tallest fishing whaling tale. Read it here.>>

Today, Primus’ sound is as strong as ever, featuring longtime guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander (who recently underwent heart surgery). And the band’s most recent project – the October release, Primus & The Chocolate Factory – takes Claypool’s fascination of Willy Wonka to a whole other level, reimagining the songs in typical Primus styles of innovation, creating a much darker and more ominous feel than the originals.

Primus & The Chocolate Factory is unique in that it marks the first time someone else in the band other than Claypool sings lead vocals on a track, with LaLonde taking the helm on the song “I Want it Now.” The album has also spawned its own show; The Chocolate Factory Tour comes to the Hershey Theatre on April 24.

Not one to remain one-dimensional, Claypool continues to broaden his musical horizons with side projects like his Americana band Duo De Twang (in which he’s also started adding his son, Cage, into the mix), he frequently fosters his love of fishing (rumors still abound that he’s working on a fishing reality show with Dean Ween, and he told me about the time he hooked a humpback whale) and he started his own boutique winery – Claypool Cellars. We caught up with Claypool at his home in Sonoma County, Ca.

alternate primus cover
Michael Yoder: More than 40 years ago when you were selling Oompa-Loompa chocolate figurines at school, could you ever have imagined that you would have created your own Willy Wonka tribute album with Primus and its own tour?

Les Claypool: I knew back then that it was my destiny to play the “Oompa Loompa” song in front of thousands of people on peyote.

MY: What is it about Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that’s so appealing for you that you wanted to do this project?

LC: It was many things. There’s those films when you’re a kid that just open your eyes to the glory of the cinema, and [Willy Wonka] was one of the first ones. As a little kid, my parents took me to all the Disney films. My step-dad hated walk-in theaters, so we were always at the drive-in in our old Chrysler. I’d sit on the rear armrest so I could see over the front seat and eat my popcorn and my bon-bons and watch these things unfold on the screen. As I started getting a little older – going into walk-in theaters and whatnot – one of the first things that caught my eye was this Wonka film. I remember seeing the previews and going, “Wow! I’ve got to see that!” Even the opening credits hooked me with all the chocolate going by on the conveyor belt. It was just amazing.

MY: Are you still a fan of candy and chocolate?

LC: I mean, I don’t dislike it. [laughs] I think sugar is a bit of the bane of our existence, but it’s a good drug – in some ways – and wretched in others. There’s a magic – a sensuality – to chocolate, I think.

 

“I knew back then that it was my destiny to play the “Oompa Loompa” song in front of thousands of people on peyote.” – Les Claypool

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MY: Were there any discussions of having wine and chocolate pairings with your Claypool Cellars wine before the shows on this tour?

LC: There were not. I find that when I have chocolate and wine, it gives me a headache – even though I love chocolate and wine. I think something about the elements creates histamines – I’m not sure. I do love wine and chocolate, but the next day, I regret it.

MY: Was there a certain song from the Willy Wonka soundtrack that was particularly exciting for you to re-imagine?

LC: Well, the first one was “Candy Man,” which kind of started the whole thing. We started doing “the ‘Candy Man’” that had this guy’s voice – this creepy dude being the candy man. I would say one of the funnest ones to interpret was “The Boat Ride,” because I just made everybody do it on the fly without listening to the track. You had to just say, “Ok, it’s your turn to play. Go!” I ran the tape, and that was it. They had one stab at it. So it was kind of cool how we layered that all together. It was all about spontaneous interpretation.

MY: How did you decide to have Larry LaLonde sing lead vocals on “I Want it Now”?

LC: I originally thought, “Well, maybe we could get somebody in there to sing it.” And then I thought it would just be great to have a different voice, and I asked Ler if he would do it. And he said, “Sure.” He didn’t even bat an eye, which surprised me because he’s usually pretty intimidated by the microphone. But he got right in there and belted it out, and I enjoyed it. He kind of has a John Lydon thing going.

MY: Any chance to get Larry to sing lead vocals on future Primus songs?

LC: I’m going to get him to sing all the Primus songs so I can relax, because it’s hard. We’re just going to do an evening of “Larry Sings Primus.” [laughs] That would be amazing – Ler sings The Cheese.

MY: What’s the easiest way you’ve found over the years to make Larry laugh?

LC: We’ve always pretty much known how to push each other’s funny bone, button or whatever the hell you want to call it. He was in the band even before I knew he could play guitar. If you read our book, Todd Huth quit the band, and the first person I thought of was Ler because he’d become such a good friend. I knew he played guitar, but I never really heard him play by himself because he was the rhythm guitar in a metal band. So he was buried by the main guy all the time. I said, “Hey, you want to do this?” He said, “Ok,” and there he was.

MY: Was there a point in your career where you felt like you really developed your voice as a musician and a vocalist?

LC: I’m still trying to figure it out. What the hell do I know? I think you go through periods. I’ve always said I was never the singer – I’m the narrator of Primus. That was always my thing. And then after we broke up in the late ’90s and I started playing with all these different musicians and all these different bands, I actually became more comfortable with my voice and learned to utilize what I had to the best of my ability. It’s not like I’m Pavarotti or anything. But singing through my schnozola and dealing with the vocal chords I’ve been given genetically, I’ve learned to harness them pretty well. So I’ve become much more comfortable with my voice over the past 10 or 15 years. For me, the 2000s was a huge growth period as a musician and a singer and a writer – more so than any other time in my life.

MY: What’s it like to be able to bring your son up on stage to perform with you now?

LC: It’s a spectacular thing. I always envied Tom Waits because he brings his son out and his family quite a lot. His son plays drums with him, and I always thought, “Man, that’s just the greatest thing.” And even friends of mine who have auto shops and their sons are working with them, I just think it’s an incredible thing. It always saddened me because I didn’t think that would ever happen because my son is a computer guy. He does all these things without telling anybody. He’s playing the banjo, which I knew that, but we go to a performance at school, and he comes out singing a Johnny Cash song and is belting it out and just killed everybody. I was like, “Holy shit!” So we had some time off, and I said, “Come on out and tour with me.” And it was spectacular – a great time. Part of the reason I did the Duo de Twang thing in front of the campfire was because [my son] and I went camping one time, and we sat around the campfire late at night. He played his banjo and I played my twang box, and away we went. It was good times.

MY: Is there a car engine you find particularly hard to work on?

LC: I find them all hard to work on, because I just don’t like working on them. I bang up my knuckles. But I’m a huge fan of the new mechanic’s gloves. Those are the greatest invention in the world because I spent years beating the shit out of my hands, and now I can wear these gloves and maintain the beauty of my fingers. My gloves are all beat to shit. I can see where I had my knuckles against some headers or something – the gloves are all melted, which would have normally been my flesh.

MY: Was it your idea to schedule a date of The Chocolate Factory Tour in Hershey?

LC: I think that was one of those things my manager thought would be clever, because I’ve never been to Hershey as far as I know. So it will be interesting. Are the streets paved with gumdrops and chocolate nuggets like The Simpsons episode “The Land of Chocolate?”

MY: It definitely doesn’t look like that. The streetlight posts are all topped with Hershey’s Kisses – that’s about it. And they just tore down the original chocolate factory last year.

LC: Huh. Why did they do that?

MY: They built a new factory in town. And I think they moved some of the processing to Mexico.

LC: [laughs] Jesus Christ. “God bless America!” [singing] That’s pretty bad when one of not even the most iconic candies – one of the most iconic things in America – is moved to Mexico. There you go. That kind of sums it up [laughs]. Well, that’s a sad thing. You just saddened me.

MY: I just have to say that I’m really excited to see you play. Primus has been number one on my bucket list of bands to see live for many years.

LS: All right. That doesn’t mean you’re going to kick the bucket after the show, are you? [laughs] Well, now it’s your Charlie Bucket list. And I’ll leave you on that note.

The Primus & the Chocolate Factory tour hits Hershey Theatre (15 E. Caracas Ave., Hershey) on April 24. 8pm. $37.35-$62.35. Click here for tickets.


 

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Posted in Music – Harrisburg, Music – Lancaster, Music – York, Music Features

Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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