Summer Camp Spotlight: Les Claypool
Every year, Summer Camp’s initial lineup is released right around the holidays as an end-of-the-year bonus for fans, and everyone gets all fired up and starts making plans for Memorial Day weekend. This year is no different, and with a veritable who’s-who of headliners that’s sure to rattle some cages, Three Sisters Park better be ready to bring the noise, because Scampers are chomping at the bit.
One of my personal favorite artists to be featured at Summer Camp 2017 is Les Claypool, who will be dancing his flamenco-slap bass across the stage with two separate acts; his main trio, Primus (one of my top five favorite bands), and the out-of-nowhere homerun collaboration with Sean Lennon, The Claypool Lennon Delirium.
Boasting one of the most outside catalogues of modern music, Claypool has also dabbled in other platforms; it’s common knowledge that he penned the South Park theme song, in addition to music for small films and videogames, and he authored the novel South of the Pumphouse. However, across all media, his work retains his dark yet colorful, somewhat creepy, and always flamboyant personality and unconventional expression. While you may not know much of Primus if you haven’t been introduced to them before, you’ve almost certainly heard some of their music or seen some of their work without realizing it. If you’ve got some time, I’d like to share why I’m excited about two Claypool shows in the darkened forest in Chillicothe.
As the lead songwriter, bassist, vocalist, and driving force behind Primus, Claypool’s distinctive style has made him an oddball left-field stalwart since the 1990 release of Frizzle Fry, a jarring gumbo of spazzy, funky, alt-metally goodness. Songs like “Groundhog’s Day”, “Mr. Knowitall”, “Too Many Puppies”, and of course “John the Fisherman” quickly established Claypool as a fierce bassist with heavy talent and a strong creative streak, if somewhat unpolished and greasy.
The grungy underground feel was cleaned up just enough on the 1991 follow-up album Sailing the Seas of Cheese (the title of which intended as a burn to the more generic music flooding MTV at that point) to match the more sophisticated songwriting. Featuring some of my all-time favorite Primus tunes, such as “Sgt. Baker”, “American Life”, “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers”, and beloved hits “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat”, their second album propelled them to a wider audience and further cemented their appeal to those looking for something different in their music.
By this point, the main Primus lineup of Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde, and drummer Tim Alexander (original drummer Jay Lane had departed almost immediately due to other commitments) had developed together and strengthened their reputation through solid touring alongside acts such as Fishbone and Rush, among others, and actually landed in the Top Ten. Keeping up their high output, 1993 delivered the landmark album Pork Soda, which unleashed on the world the notorious “My Name is Mud” (there is a famous story of Claypool’s amps being clogged by mud-slinging fans at Woodstock ’94), “Welcome to This World”, “DMV”, the terrifying “Mr. Krinkle”, and the slippery “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon”. While the music is a typically bizarre mishmash of Captain Beefheart-esque atonality and punk/funk-inflected art-metal, the subject matter takes a noticeable shift in a dark direction, a theme which would paint much of Claypool’s work from this point on.
Following more touring, in 1996 Primus took things in a more loose, prog-based direction with the also-quite-successful Tales From the Punchbowl. There’s a lot to dig into on this album, as it starts out strong with the dramatic “Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats”, “Mrs. Blaileen”, the rollicking (and devastating in a live setting) “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”, and the spectacularly ominous “Southbound Pachyderm”. Those are just the first four songs! Other highlights include “Year of the Parrot” and “Over the Electric Grapevine”, but as usual, I recommend listening in one solid session. In any case, this album found Primus stretching out more and finding their spacey side. Oddly enough, it was also the last album for seven years to feature Tim Alexander.
Having found a replacement in Bryan “Brain” Mantia, Claypool laid to tape 1997’s Brown Album. While I am not admittedly as familiar with this album as I am with others, the replacement of Alexander by Mantia is clearly felt throughout the record. Claypool’s writing is much more aggressive, and songs like “The Return of Sathington Willoughby”, “Over the Falls”, “Shake Hands With Beef”, “Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread”, and the creeping “Kalamazoo” find Claypool back in his murky swamp of belligerent carnival skronk.
By 1999, the three members of Primus were becoming a bit frayed around the edges from the constant tour-record-tour cycle, and the tension resulted in one of my favorite Primus albums, Antipop. It really is anti-pop, with guest musicians and producers such as James Hetfield, Tom Morello, Matt Stone, and Tom Waits on the sprawling album-closer “Coattails of a Dead Man” (a deliciously off-putting number that sounds like if Tim Burton was a song). Other highlights for me include “Eclectic Electric”, “Greet the Sacred Cow”, the jaunty “Natural Joe”, and “The Ballad of Bodacious”. It’s a more aggressive album that continues the trend of strong songwriting and vicious satire draped in sweaty art metal.
Following this period, Primus went on a hiatus, with members exploring their own projects (Claypool had a much-loved but short-lived trio called Oysterhead with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and The Police’s Stewart Copeland), in addition to Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, which featured Bryan Mantia, legendary P-Funk and Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell (R.I.P.), and guitar virtuoso Buckethead, and Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Different outlets led to different music from Claypool, ranging from the more straightforward to the truly esoteric, and everywhere in between. One of my favorite aspects about Claypool, his jamming ability, was likely honed during his time in the jam circuit.
After much ado and several greatest-hits releases, retrospectives, and a live DVD, Primus eventually began touring again, hitting major festivals along the way and just generally finding their footing again, until 2010, when destiny struck, and Jay Lane returned to the fold for the first time since the beginning. Once all the blocks fell into place, Green Naugahyde, their first album in twelve years was released. Songs like "Tragedy's A Comin'", "Eternal Consumption Engine", "Lee Van Cleef" and "Moron TV" hooked me instantly. I first saw them the next year at Summer Camp 2012. They tore that place apart, and with a set list of major hits and guest appearances by members of Gogol Bordello and none other than Bob Weir himself (jamming the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” no less!), it was an eye-opening show for me, and it was cool to see the original Primus trio before Jay Lane left again and Tim Alexander returned to the fold.
Primus returned to Summer Camp in 2014, played a different set list featuring the songs I’d been desperate to see, and once again burned the Moonshine Stage to the ground; each time I’ve seen Primus at Summer Camp, it’s been the talk of the weekend. I can only imagine how this year will go.
Now that I’ve given some context for just how big of a deal Primus is, let’s talk briefly about The Claypool Lennon Delirium. It came as a complete surprise to me when I first read about the project, and I have to admit I was dubious, but given Claypool’s track record and Lennon’s ancestry, I figured it would at least be worth an initial listen. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.
The duo’s debut album, Monolith of Phobos, is the perfect blend of Claypool’s trademark circus poetry and funky, angry thwaps, and Lennon’s smooth psychedelia and shades of his father. Their voices blend together so well it’s almost disarming, and the tunes flow like a river and keep you enthralled from start to finish. There are some real highlights in the title track, the two-part odyssey of “Cricket and the Genie”, the spastic, old-school videogame blitz of “Mr. Wright”, the oddly beautiful “Boomerang Baby”, the stomping “Breath of a Salesman”, and the bouncy sea shanty “Captain Lariat”, but as usual, you should really listen to it all the way through. In any case, the album is amazing, and it feels so relaxed and not forced in the least. It doesn’t feel as though there were any expectations or pressure to put out a hit record, so the result was just plain fun music.
If you’ve read all this, I appreciate you bearing with me. I really dig Les Claypool’s music in all its forms, and I am beyond excited that he is returning to Summer Camp for 2017. He’s a storied musician who has had untold influence on a newer generation of artists of all stripes. If you’re a fan of unique music and you haven’t seen Primus, get yourself over to Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe on Memorial Day weekend, and hopefully I’ll see you in the crowd for any and all Claypool shows. Happy listening!