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Les Claypool

For the most part, alt-rock of the '90s was quite serious in both its message and delivery. Thankfully, Primus - and specifically, singer/bassist Les Claypool - often presented a much-needed break from this gravitas, as evidenced by such tunes as "Pudding Time," "Tommy the Cat," "Mr. Krinkle," and "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." And Claypool's wittiness is on display throughout the debut album by Duo de Twang, Four Foot Shack.

Joined by longtime pal Bryan Kehoe on guitar, the debut recording by Duo de Twang is stripped down versions of roots rock classics ("The Battle of New Orleans"), unexpected covers ("Stayin' Alive"), renditions of tunes by Claypool's other bands ("Buzzards of Green Hill," originally done by Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade), and reworkings of Primus originals.

In this chat with Mr. Claypool, he talked about the Twang, Tom Waits, and the stories behind some of his tastiest tunes.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start off by talking about Duo de Twang, just as far as how the whole concept came about and how the band was formed.

Les Claypool: Well, I got asked to put together a project for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco a couple few years ago. I'm sort of known for wandering around backstage with my dobro bass twanging away on things, so good old Brad [Sands, co-manager of Primus] said, "Let's throw something together for this."

So I got together with an old guitar pickin' buddy of mine and we did the set and picked some old Primus tunes, picked some tunes of mine, picked some tunes that I admire, and subsequently it's turned into my "fuck-off vacation band" project.

Songfacts: How would you compare writing songs for Duo de Twang for writing songs for Primus?

Les: Well, I've really only written one song for Duo de Twang at this point. And that's the "Four Foot Shack" song. Everything else is covers of either stuff I've done or stuff that I wished I'd done.

The thing is, that version of "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" that's on the Twang record is how the original "Beaver" was actually written. It just happened that I had this bass part with all these triplets in it and it kind of fit real well with those lyrics. So when we did Punchbowl [Primus' 1995 album Tales from the Punchbowl], we put the two together and that became the "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" that everybody came to know. But it was originally just supposed to be this little filler, kind of buffer track that we're known for on our records.

While Primus has certainly offered up quite a few classic full-length alt-rock compositions, they were also known to place short "pieces" between songs - sometimes musical, sometimes not - that often also served as a prelude to another song. For example, on their first three studio albums - Frizzle Fry, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and Pork Soda - listeners were treated to such oddities as "Sathington Willoughby," "Seas of Cheese," "Grandad's Little Ditty," "Sathington Waltz," and "Pork Chop's Little Ditty I & II."

Songfacts: And then like you said the band does a lot of cover songs. How exactly do you pick the cover songs?

Les: It's pretty casual. Some of it's stuff I wanted to do, like "Bridge Came Tumblin' Down." But some songs you just start kind of futzing around in practice or at sound checks and you stumble across a lyric and it just happens to work and it makes everybody laugh and we all get a kick out of it and away we go. Like the Bee Gees song ["Stayin' Alive"]. We tried to do "Holy Diver" by Dio, but never finished that one.

Songfacts: That would be a very good song to try!

Les: Yeah. It just sort of depends. It's all very casual.

Tends to be a lot of drinking involved. It is what it sounds like. It's two guys sitting around a campfire. We are literally sitting around a campfire onstage playing these songs.

Songfacts: You've played with a wide variety of really great guitarists. I was thinking of Larry LaLonde, Buckethead, Adrian Belew and also Trey Anastasio. Are there any guitarists that you've found are easier to play with or more of a challenge?

Les: Well, whether it's a guitarist or saxophonist or a vibraphonist or drummer or whatever the hell it is, when all is said and done, you're having a conversation. You're having a musical conversation. And like any conversation, sometimes conversations flow, sometimes they're deep conversations, sometimes they're relatively shallow conversations. Sometimes they're awkward conversations. It just depends to an extent on how comfortable each musical conversationalist is with each other and how they are with themselves and how well you interact.

I've been doing this so long that I don't generally get too self-conscious about this stuff anymore. You kind of just let it flow. I don't know if I answered your question. [Laughs]

Songfacts: You did. And then who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Les: Songwriters? Well, obviously, I'm a big Tom Waits fan. He has earned a huge place in American history as a fabulous songwriter. Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed, a lot of the country folk guys really wrote some amazing songs.

I was always attracted to songs that tell a tale of some sort. That's what always got me listening when I was a kid. So that still tends to get me going. Listening to Johnny Horton and hearing him singing about "Battle of New Orleans," it makes you listen a little harder than if somebody's singing about partying on the dance floor.

Claypool has never been hesitant to voice his admiration of Tom Waits' music. When it came time to record a studio version of "Tommy the Cat" for Primus' major label debut, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, the band was asked if they would like a special guest to appear on the record. Waits was invited, and accepted. Since then, Claypool has appeared on such Waits recordings as "The Earth Died Screaming," and even served as Waits' bassist in 2013 at a performance at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit. Waits produced (and appeared) on another Primus tune, "Coattails of a Dead Man."

Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, is also a musical collaborator - including co-penning, among others, the songs "Hang Down Your Head" off Rain Dogs, "I'll Be Gone" off Franks Wild Years, and "Yesterday Is Here" off Big Time.

Songfacts: You just mentioned Tom Waits. And I think you were one of the first rock musicians that was a pretty outspoken fan of Tom Waits, talking about him in interviews back in the early '90s. It's kind of hard to fathom this, but there was a point that he was more of a cult artist, whereas now everyone seems to be a big fan of Tom Waits.

Les: It's funny, because when I first started talking about Tom Waits to friends of mine, they all thought I was nuts, because they thought I was saying John Waite. I'm like, "Yeah, let's listen to some Tom Waits." They're like, "What the hell are you talking about?" So it's pretty amazing to see his evolution just as far as his status in the world of music.

And it's a great validation, I think, on many levels.

Songfacts: What is your favorite Tom Waits album and why?

Les: I'm not big on favorites. But Rain Dogs is probably my pick just because it was the first one that really hooked me, that sunk the hook into my jaw to the point where I knew the hook was not going to ever come out.

Songfacts: I remember the first Tom Waits album I ever heard was Bone Machine, because I was a big Primus fan and I read that you played on it. I bought that CD back in '92, I think it was.

Les: Doesn't seem like that long ago, but it was a while ago.

Songfacts: What exactly stands out about when you recorded with Tom Waits back then?

Les: What stands out about that session in particular?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Les: Working with Tom it's a learning experience every time. But also he's a friend of mine. I know him and I know his family, and Kathleen [Brennan] is an amazing creative force. It's always a good time; it's always just a good hang and very casual, and that's the way he does things. And you just kind of watch him stir up the soup and you try and be a part of that soup. Help the soup without distracting from the soup.

Songfacts: Have you ever written a song on an instrument other than bass?

Les: I write on all kinds of different things. A lot of times I write from percussion. My stuff, the Claypool stuff, tends to be written from percussion first. But it depends. If it's a lyric that I want to build on, then it starts with the lyric and you work from the melody of the lyric and kind of work around it. Sometimes you take a lyric and you stick it with a bass part that you already have. "Toys Go Winding Down" I wrote on an acoustic guitar. I've written some stuff on marimba and it became a song.

But when I say "write," that's the beginning. The first seed in the ground comes from some of these instruments. When all is said and done, the bass is my crayon and that's what I do most of my drawing with.

Songfacts: Now that I think about it, I remember you wrote the Robot Chicken theme on a keyboard or something.

Les: Yeah. I got this old Lowrey home organ with all the buttons. Back in the '60s or '70s it was a gem unit, just the super high-falutin' unit, and I got it from a friend of mine's grandfather. Traded him a set of golf clubs for it. And it's the item in my house that whenever little kids are over, they just turn that thing on and sit there and beat on it and it does the bossa nova rhythms and stuff. But it's got this built-in cassette player, so when I did Robot Chicken, I just sat down and started hammering out the [onomatopoeia: play the clip].
player1

But I had no way of reaching my studio with a microphone, so I just recorded it onto cassette and then took the cassette into my studio.

Songfacts: Cool. What's the story behind "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver"?

Les: "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver." I always had this image of this guy I knew in high school who would race around. He was one of these guys that always wanted to be a cop. And I'm not saying this about all cops, but there's that certain faction of individual that wants to be a cop because they got picked on when they were younger and they just felt the need to be in a position of authority. "I'll show them" sort of thing. And this guy was one of those guys.

He had this semi-hopped-up family car that his parents had given him, and he used to race that thing around and do stupid things, like do burnouts in the Jack in the Box parking lot when it was full of teenagers hanging around. He'd almost wipe somebody out every time. Just one of those guys.

So that's where the image of Jerry for "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" came from. But then it just expanded from there, because Jerry, you know, "He never did win no checkered flags, never did come in last." So he's this mediocre racecar driver. And then of course in the end he gets drunk and wraps himself around a telephone pole.

Songfacts: What about the story behind "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver."

Les: Well, basically the whole inspiration for that thing came from a fishing trip. I was fly fishing with a friend of mine up in Lassen County, and the sun was going down and we were heading back to the car. He was off in one direction, and I went off in another direction. I come around this corner and I step into the creek. And just as I spied this thing, it spied me. It was this big, furry mass coming my way. It flipped and popped its tail and scared the shit out of me, and I scared the shit out of it.

It was this giant beaver. I mean, it was huge.

So it kind of got in my head. This big brown beaver, big brown beaver. Okay. Well, how can I make a song out of that? And then it became, "Wynona's got herself a big brown beaver." And from there it just built into this little mythological character that obviously had a little double entendre to it.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were big-time Primus fans - so much so that they asked the band to pen their show's theme song. Primus accepted and submitted a tune. One problem - it was at a slower pace, and would not fit in the amount of time allocated for the show's opening. The dilemma was solved by speeding up the recording, and with Mr. Claypool agreeing to re-record his vocals so it wouldn't sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. The original version with the slower tempo can be heard being played over the show's end credits - albeit as an instrumental version.

When Les refers to The Spirit of Christmas, he's talking about a South Park short that Trey Parker and Matt Stone made before they had a show. Featuring a battle between Jesus and Santa Claus, the video was commissioned by a TV executive and sent to his friends as a Christmas card. It quickly circulated around the industry and led to Parker and Stone's deal with Comedy Central to produce the series.

Songfacts: And what about the theme song to South Park?

Les: Well, we were asked to put together something for this TV show. And I don't even believe it was called South Park yet. They just said, "Oh, this show is about a place called South Park. Blah, blah, blah, blah." And so I just sat down, okay, "Going down to South Park, going to have..." I'd seen the original cartoon, the original The Spirit of Christmas cartoon, and I thought, "Let's have the kids do the response. I'll do the call, they do the response." And it just became what it became.

June 6, 2014. For more Les, visit lesclaypool.com and primusville.com.

    About the Author:

    Greg PratoA journalist from Long Island, New York, Greg's books include A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, and MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video. Greg is at high risk for Metal Neck, but has thus far retained his cognition.More from Greg Prato
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Comments: 2

My only criticism of this interview is that it's too damn short!Derek from Wi
Great article, I often wonder about Claypools lyrics and the meanings or inspirations. Shake hands with beef, Sergeant Baker, Harold of the Rocks all come to mind.Did he really have a friend Bob? Thanks for a little insight.Gary from Valencia California

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