Primus’ Les Claypool and Ler LaLonde reveal how friendship and new tone toys
helped them resurrect the most bizarre power trio of the last 25 years.
BY SHAWN HAMMOND
Primus (left to right): Larry “Ler” LaLonde, Jay Lane, and Les Claypool. Photo by Brad Hodge
Caricatures—those silly portraits you can buy at amuse- ment parks and state fairs—offer a fascinating case study of human nature. When they’re done well, you recognize the
subject immediately, and yet they’re so exaggerated that it’s impossible
to take them seriously.
For Primus—hands down the most out-there new band when they
emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s—caricatures are everything.
Bassist/vocalist Les Claypool’s playing is so wacky and mind-bogglingly
over-the-top, his lyrics and vocal delivery are so off-the-wall, and guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde’s lines are so dissonant, that it’s a major miracle
their 1990 album, Frizzle Fry, spawned a minor radio hit with “John
the Fisherman.” Never mind that the following year Claypool’s even
more avant-garde jibberjabber and the jaw-dropping bass tapping on
“Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” as well as the skwonky slapping and frenetic 6-string wailing on “Tommy the Cat” (both from Sailing the Seas
of Cheese) were all over MTV and rock radio. Naturally, the videos were
chock full of bizarre-o animation and claymation caricatures.
Looking back, the irony is that Primus’ story obliterates musicians’
favorite rhetorical caricatures of the 1980s and 1990s. You know—the
ones that say rockers from the Reagan years all wore spandex, teased
their hair, and played wanky solos on pointy-headstocked guitars
over brain-dead eighth-note bass lines, while the ’90s supposedly had
nothing to offer but plaid-wearing shoegazers who could barely play and
who hated solos as much as themselves.
In fact, Claypool was as responsible as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’
Flea for sending legions of young bassists to woodshed on über-techni-cal slapping and popping techniques. And LaLonde, who had studied
advanced theory with Joe Satriani as a teen, was a uniquely qualified texturalist who could weave shredding atonal tapestries through
Claypool’s outlandish escapades. And drummers Tim “Herb” Alexander
and, later, Bryan “Brain” Mantia were technical powerhouses who completed the trio of strangeness. Primus was like Rush re-imagined by a
mentally disturbed circus master.
But sometime in the late ’90s, the clever caricatures and celebratory weirdness started to lose their allure for the band. By 2001,
Primus was burnt out—on the music and each other. Claypool
thought they were done for good, but they decided to call their
break a “hiatus.” While LaLonde worked on various projects—one
with Brain Mantia, and another with System of a Down vocalist
Serj Tankian—the Primus bass guru also stretched out. Among his
endeavors was the fusion-y Oysterhead, which included legendary
Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Phish’s Trey Anastasio on
guitar, and Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains had deep-fried
freak show Buckethead on the 6-string, Bernie Worrell on organ,