Rank Your Records: Les Claypool Rates Primus' Albums
The bassist ranks the highs and lows of the last 25 years of Primus.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Those too young to have been part of the wave of Primus unleashed on the world in the 1990s—with an onslaught of hit albums that jump-started the careers of Les Claypool and company, as well as the intriguingly strange videos that accompanied the singles—Primus is probably best known to the 2000s youth for “John the Fisherman” marking not only one of the first master tracks allowed to the Guitar Hero video game franchise but also one of the few with an absolutely kickass bassline to attempt to master with plastic buttons.
To be fair, there wasn’t much else to know about Primus in the 2000s, a decade during which the band stayed dormant, on hiatus, before returning with Green Naugahyde in 2011, and then adapting the musical creations of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley in 2014’s Primus & the Chocolate Factory—which Claypool said, even if we allowed it on this list, he wouldn’t know where to place it because “it’s not really a Primus record; it’s our interpretation of other people’s music,” though noting “it hints at the direction we’re all leaning toward.”
That still leaves seven studio albums for the groundbreaking bassist to ponder, though, so we asked him to do just that.
7. Antipop (1999)
Noisey: What puts Antipop dead last on your list?
Les Claypool: Mainly because it was a tough time for the band, personally. We weren’t getting along very well. I feel fortunate that Primus stopped at the end of the 90s. We went on a hiatus, which is a fancy way of saying we just didn’t like being around each other and we wanted to break up but we didn’t have the balls to actually break up. I think we stopped before we totally shit our pants, but I think the closest we came was doing the Antipop record, because it was somewhat directionless. I think there’s some good nuggets on there, but it’s not near as good as some of the other recordings we’ve done over the years. Music is supposed to represent the soundscape of your life. People look at various records and think of what was going on in their life at that time, and during that time, we just weren’t getting along very well, so it doesn’t bring up the greatest memories.
You mentioned being directionless. Do you think working with so many guest producers contributed to that?
I think that’s pointed a big finger toward the rudderless element we had going on at the time. But because of that, there are some interesting nuggets in there—us working with Tom Waits as a producer, Stewart Copeland, Tom Morello, even getting Matt Stone in there to produce a track. Those elements definitely had some upsides to them and some spectacular elements to them, as well. For the most part, it’s my least favorite Primus record.
6. Tales from the Punchbowl (1995)
Why is this one next?
For me, I’d say Brown Album and Punchbowl are about equal. It’s not that I dislike them; it’s just that I don’t like them as much as some of the other records. The only record that I really have any bad taste in my mouth about is Antipop. Otherwise, I felt they were all representative of what we were trying to do at the time, and I’m proud of them.
Punchbowl, there’s some great tunes on it. It was the first one recorded at my house. In fact, I had just moved to the Rancho Relaxo, out there in the middle of nowhere. There was a big storm came through, the biggest storm they’d had in many years, knocked all the power out. We actually ended up renting a Honda generator to finish mixing the record. Punchbowl was the last record with [drummer Tim Alexander], so it was becoming a little more distant, as far as the three of us participating. It was a lot more of us writing in the studio, as opposed to us getting together and rehearsing up some stuff.
There’s still a bunch of tunes on that record that we still, to this day, include regularly in our sets. A song like “Southbound Pachyderm” is one of my favorite Primus tunes ever. It’s such a great song to play, such a great song to stretch on. It’s very textural, too. “Grapevine” is on that record, too. “Electric Grapevine”—we play that a lot these days. I think there’s a lot of strong pieces on it, it’s just a little more disjointed than Pork Soda of [Sailing the] Seas of Cheese, and that was just the beginning of Tim’s exiting.
5. Brown Album (1997)
When forced to choose, you put Brown Album above Punchbowl. Why?
I actually really liked making the Brown Album. [Brian “Brain” Mantia] showed up. There was this new spark. We decided to make this very raw, raw recording, and I bought this old one-inch, 16-track. Me and [guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde] were like the pawn shop weasels, so we had all this pawn shop gear — all these old, crappy compressors and stuff we would run everything through. So the Brown Album was definitely this big experiment in sound [laughs]. It’s a pretty raw sounding recording, but we had a hell of a time making that record, just a good old time. Tim always had these giant drum kits that were reminiscent of Bill Bruford and Neil Peart, and here comes Brain. We talk him into buying this big Vistalite kit, so it was total [John] Bonham. We went for this big Bonham-esque approach—very few mics, lots of compression, room micing and whatnot, just kind of going for what it is, the Brown Album. It has that brown sound to it.
4. Green Naugahyde (2011)
Why does this one land right in the middle?
I really like Green Naugahyde. We play a lot of that material these days. Again, it was [drummer] Jay Lane coming back into the fold, which was very exciting. It was all of us getting together and being excited to be together. In the 90s, Primus would make a record, then tour, then make a record, then tour, then make a record, then tour. In the course of those several years, we put out more records than most of our contemporaries, by quite a lot. You watch someone like Tool who puts out a record every three to five years, we were every year—boom, boom, boom, we’d have a record. That was great, but it also got to the point where it burned us out a bit. Having that time from 2000 to 2010 for us to—obviously, I went off and did a ton of stuff, and everybody did their thing, and then coming back with Jay Lane, who has always been my guy as far as go-to drummers, we were very excited and fired up to make that record.
For me, as a bass player—I came across this when I did the Oysterhead record—I approach a song much differently if I’m writing to someone else’s part. I enjoy doing that. And it’s a great contrast to the stuff where it’s all obviously bass-driven. So that was a fun record to make, and I feel like it was a very strong record. It was critically well-received. A lot of our contemporaries came back with records around that time, and it seemed like ours was the one that was most representative of what we used to be, to an extent, as opposed to—I don’t want to name any names, but some records that came out around that time that were comeback records but didn’t really represent what you knew and loved about those bands.
Was it a conscious effort to recapture that sound, or something that simply came out of everyone bringing these song ideas to the table?
If it doesn’t come naturally, I don’t really like to do it. Anything that’s forced repels me, and I start heading off in a different direction and find other people to fiddle around with. But this one was very natural. It reminded me of a lot of the early days, when Jayski was in the band prior to Tim, when we wrote a lot of those original songs that were on the first couple of records. It has that sort of Jayski hop. Tim’s has this lumbering drive to his playing, whereas Jayski has this hop to his playing. So we got a lot of that back, which was really cool. But also pushing him to do some things that had dark percussive tones, as well. I still think it’s a great record. I very much enjoy that record.
3. Pork Soda (1993)
Why does Pork Soda rank here for you?
It’s just that it’s not one or two. [Laughs] I just think those first three records—not including the live record—are what really defined Primus. We were all at the top of our game, and we were all firing on eight cylinders. It was a very exciting time. That climb up the hill is a very exciting time. We were doing some experimenting on Pork Soda. Every record, we’re turning over new rocks, trying to figure out what the hell we’re going to do, sonically and composition-wise. Pork Soda was a reflection of a lot of the touring we had done those first few years. Songs like “My Name Is Mud” that came from me jamming this bass part backstage at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley before we went on, and my dad sitting there and going, “Well, that’s a good one.” It eventually became a song. It’s probably our most successful record, as far as sales.
This is also the first time you went to the home recording studio. How much did that influence of the vibe of the recording process?
We had done The Seas of Cheese and gone into the fancy studios, took that money from the record companies, then went to Fantasy [Studios]. I had been doing a lot of recording in my house in Berkeley on this little Tascam 388. More and more, I wanted to get my fingers on the old buttons. We just hired our soundman and went into our rehearsal space, and brought in a bunch of the gear we used live, because we’d heard some of his live tapes that sounded amazing. We used the same console we use live. Back then, that was the introduction of the ADAT, so we brought ADATs and stacked them up, and away we went. I don’t want to say it was a raw recording, but it was a very live approach to making records. This was also long before Pro Tools, where you could edit out any blurps or belches or any of that stuff. It’s funny, because I went in and remixed Seas of Cheese a couple years ago to do the 5.1 mix. And I was amazed—and it’s the same with Pork Soda—how few takes we had. We would track these things in two, three takes, sometimes one take, and that would be it—Boom! There it was.
Speaking of being in that moment, a lot of fans and critics noted Pork Soda as a darker album, thematically, than those that preceded it. What was going on in that moment that led to that?
I’m not really sure. It was good times, happy times [laughs]. It’s not like we were reflecting any personal drama or anything. It was a little heavier of a record. I was getting more into the six-string. Obviously, the cover is black. The notion of Pork Soda was us taking another stab at the whole ridiculousness of us being part of MTV and radio and whatnot, how we were this thing that was an acquired taste, like a meat-flavored soda would be.
2. Sailing the Seas of Cheese (1991)
Why is Seas of Cheese number two?
Seas of Cheese is probably our most respected album, I would think. But it was also that record like, “Here we are, about to release something on a major label,” and we’re about to be marketed right alongside the other bands that were popular at the time, which were these hairball bands—the Poisons, and the Guns N’ Roses, and these different things that we just did not fit in with. That was the impetus of the title, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, because we just knew all of a sudden we were going to be thrust into this world where we weren’t sure anyone thought we belonged. It was sink or swim; we were going to sail the seas of cheese.
Did the jump to a major label here make a big difference in the quality of the album?
We were very fortunate that Interscope was this young babe in the woods with all this power and knowledge. They had the major label backing, but it was still very much an independent. We were the second release on Interscope—the first being Gerardo’s Rico Suave. So along comes Tom Whalley, and he signs us. It was an interesting time. Because we sold so many Frizzle Fry records, all of a sudden all these major labels that had been ignoring us for years were knocking on our door. And Whalley was the only one who showed up at a gig, by accident, and just saw us, and saw the fervor of the audience and whatnot, and signed us because of us. He had no idea we had sold 80,000 records. So here we were, going to be the second release on Interscope, and we got to know everybody at Interscope. It was a very exciting time to be part of that feeling that became this huge entity that is the Interscope of today.
1. Frizzle Fry (1990)
Your first at number one. Why?
My favorite album is Frizzle Fry, just because it represents such a spectacular time in our lives, because we were young, we were going up the hill, we were doing things nobody was doing, accomplishing things nobody—even ourselves—thought we were going to accomplish. At that point in your life, you don’t have family and kids and mortgages, and your whole, entire world, revolves around your band and your bandmates. It’s just a spectacular time.
Speaking of that time, Primus seems like a band that has always thrived in a live setting. But Frizzle Fry brought you to the studio setting for the first time. What was that experience like?
For us, it was so exciting when we put out that live record and the buzz that it got, the position it put us in, as far as going in and really laying down these tracks we had been performing live for so long, then augmenting them with some other elements—working with [producer Matt Winegar], bringing in some friends to do the Fart Sandwich Posse. It was an amazing thing. Of course, we were probably stoned out of our minds half the time. There’s that sense that you’re accomplishing something and you’re making it, you’re very relevant, you’re on the cutting edge. There’s all these feelings. You’re not encumbered by anything but the notion of going out and making this music. We were throwing a lot of pasta at the wall back then, and it was some crazy pasta hitting the wall.
Bill Jones can be found on Twitter @billjonesink, but he doesn’t know anything about psilocybin. He swears. Why do you keep looking at him like that?