The evolution of Les Claypool

From Primus to the Frog Brigade.


Moore Theater, 443-1744, $19-$21 8 p.m. Thurs., April 18

LES CLAYPOOL has a disarmingly casual approach to making music, to say the least. The former Primus frontman has one word to describe his upcoming tour with the Frog Brigade, an eclectic bunch of musicians who tackle old Primus tracks as well as covers of Residents, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson songs. "Pan-demonium!" he cackles gleefully. "What more do you need?"

Well, that depends on your definition of pandemonium. But Primus fans will understand the oblique Claypool verbiage. "Improv plays a big role in Frog Brigade—our songs are like skeletons to build on. Basically, we're just out there throwing pasta at the walls."

Colorful euphemisms don't detract from Claypool's remarkable talent and success as Primus' frontman, the eclectic bassist and adenoidal vocalist who rocketed to fame with willfully goofy—yet undeniably catchy—songs like "Too Many Puppies" and "Groundhog's Day," tracks included on Primus' first two releases Suck on This and Frizzle Fry. Long out of circulation, these two albums have been digitally remastered and are set for rerelease April 23 on Claypool's Prawn Song label. These releases coincide with a Frog Brigade tour that kicks off in Seattle this week.

In the early '90s, Primus' loopy avant-rock, post-punk weirdness appealed to a scene in need of a little dadaist restructuring, eventually finding favor with the nascent grunge movement and garnering the band a headlining spot for Lollapalooza in 1993. Their debut studio release, Frizzle Fry, served to cement their growing reputation, and it remains a favorite for many Primus fans. "Frizzle Fry is probably my favorite Primus album, but it didn't have the highest production value. We did some EQ pumping, and it really leaps out at you now," says Claypool. Their sophomore studio release, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, was picked up by Interscope in 1991, going gold shortly before the subsequent release of Pork Soda, which debuted in the top 10. But their first two releases went out of print as their label, Caroline, went out of business. "But after 10 years, the rights reverted back to us— a very rare thing in this business," Claypool explains.

Claypool formed Primus back in 1986 with guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, quickly accruing a loyal following in their Bay Area home base. As their fame grew, they attracted the attention of several record companies who wanted to "work hand in hand" with Primus, "developing them into a viable commodity." "Really, it sounded like a bunch of bullshit," says Claypool. "So we said screw that, let's just put out our own record." With a recording budget of $3,000—borrowed from Claypool's dad—they recorded a couple of live shows at the now-defunct Berkeley Square, which were condensed into their first release, 1989's Suck on This. "We printed up a thousand records, sold them at local record stores, then took that money and printed up another thousand copies, sold those, printed up another thousand . . . and eventually we got a deal with Caroline."

Primus went on hiatus in 2000, but Claypool soon got a call from a local promoter asking him to put together some local musicians for a gig at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. "I called [Phish guitarist] Trey Anastasio, who said he always wanted to play with me, and [former Police drummer] Stewart Copeland. I knew Stewart, and we formed Oysterhead." The success of this impromptu gig led to more requests for like-minded projects for festivals across the country. One of these was scheduled in Calaveras County, home of Mark Twain's "celebrated jumping frog." "I was going to call it Les Claypool's Thunder Brigade, but [the promoters] were worried that was a little heavy-handed for a gig I was doing with people like Phil Lesh, so I said call it the Frog Brigade, and I just evolved from there, playing these festivals as Frog Brigade with different musicians."

Since then, Claypool has partnered with the likes of James Hetfield for a cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln" on the soon-to-be-released NASCAR compilation, and Fishbone's Norwood Fisher for Claypool's upcoming solo venture. Times have changed, as have the players, and not without a note of regret from Claypool. "Most of the places we used to play as Primus are gone now." "But," he adds more cheerfully, "on the flip side, there seems to be a new vibrancy to the scene and this jam scene I've sort of become involved with. We're all these 'avant' rebel players suddenly being embraced by this community." He continues, "I think it's just people wanting to hear musicians play, as opposed to machines and whatnot. Not that I have anything against that stuff, but I'm a guy that goes out and plays."

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