Les Claypool is a man and musician who defies classification. He has played his way through several "genres" and kicked the beans out of many a fan base. While escaping a simple category, Les has always danced on the darker side of the sound waves, leaving many a music consumer scratching their head as they walk out of one of the many venues Les has blown up.
In addition to his music being very difficult to describe or perhaps understand, Les the man is just as hard to wrap your brain around. Not only is Les the infamous bass player and band leader, but he is also quite a proficient producer, director, screenwriter, video artist, cartoonist, and of course he owns his own record label; Prawn Song.
Now I am in no way claiming that I have "figured out" Les Claypool in a half hour conversation back stage at the High Sierra Music Festival, but I have perhaps unlocked a small snippet of the man they call "Colonel." While I've heard a few rumors that Les was "hard to talk to" or "a bit weird, and difficult to connect with," I found neither of these observations to be true. In fact I found Les to be rather down-to-earth, and in fact quite easy to engage. Maybe a bit odd, but that very well could be the pot calling the kettle black, as they say.
Les and I linked up back stage at High Sierra on Sunday evening as Michael Franti & Spearhead were gearing up to shut down the festivities on the Main Stage. Les had just rolled out of his tour bus after catching a quick nap before his Late Night gig that would in fact help wrap up High Sierra 2003. I sipped coffee and listened while Les spoke candidly, letting all of us into the interesting world of Les Claypool.
Kayceman: Well I think since we are sitting here at the High Sierra Music Festival, it would be appropriate to start off by asking you if you have a preference between the smaller festivals such as this or a larger one like Bonnaroo?
Les: No. I just think it depends on the festival. Some are better organized than others. This is my first year at High Sierra; I've had a good time all weekend. I've only been here a couple of days, but it was great. And I was equally impressed with the first Bonnaroo. I didn't go this year but they are both very well organized events. A lot of variety of things for people to experience. To an extent, well not to an extent, this IS my job. And it makes it that much more pleasant when it's actually a fun thing. Everybody likes to enjoy themselves, including us.
By Adam Gulledge
Kayceman: I would hope so.
Les: It just makes it that much more fun. Makes me wanna do it more often.
Kayceman: Well that's good to hear. With so many time slots at these festivals do you have a specific time of day that you particularly enjoy playing?
Les: I like playing in the dark.
It seems as if your music translates a little better in the dark.
I think it does, at least for me. The type of stuff we do, the more textural stuff, I think it (the dark) lends itself to more theatrics, which I like.
By Jaci Downs
And the people who go see you, that's what they enjoy as well. Now, you've obviously played with such a wide array of people, really no need to list them, but is there anybody else that you particularly have in mind that you would really like to get together and collaborate with?
I'm sure that there is... Well you know I've gotten to befriend a lot of my heroes like Tom Waits, Adrian Belew and all these different people. But I would have loved to have been able to do something with Gabriel, Roger Waters, David Gilmore, and I'm a big fan of Sigur Ros I'd love to do something with them.
Actually I saw you at that show in Oakland.
Ya, and I wanted to ask you what you thought about that?
I thought it was one of the best musical experiences I've had in the past five years, if not more.
Sigur Ros By A. O'neill
Likewise. I was blown away. I had heard it was something to see, but it was beyond my expectations.
I really enjoyed that. It's inspiring to me. It makes me want to stretch out in different directions.
Are there any other bands that are really turning you on right now?
You know I saw Umphrey's McGee today for the first time and I really dug them. I had heard about them, but I really enjoyed them. I think they're going to do very well.
[Quite, quizzical look on Les' face as he contemplates other bands] Big Sigur Ros fan. [Les then breaks into laughter]
Me too. Can't argue with that. Now I know you are playing with the Biscuits tonight, and I believe at the Jammys when they didn't have a bass player you played with them, is that correct?
It wasn't that they didn't have a bass player, it was that I was nominated for something. So I went, and you know how the Jammys are, everybody sits in with each other. So the whole jamband scene was pretty damn new to me back then, I'm still kind of a pup in this scene you know. And I didn't really know those guys, but they liked this tune I did with Sausage so they wanted to play it, and they did a good job.
Disco Biscuits By Adam Gulledge
How did you enjoy playing with them?
It was fun, but a bit chaotic. I flew in, got stuck in traffic, missed sound check and everybody was freaking out. I was by myself and I almost didn't make it.
A bit overwhelming at the moment?
Ya, pretty overwhelming. With Primus there was always somebody there to kinda baby sit me when I was traveling and what not. I wasn't used to dealing with this shit on my own. [Breaks into laughter]
I can see that. Moving on to the Frog Brigade a bit, obviously Eenor wasn't there last night, and I had heard that he may not be a part of the band anymore. Is that true?
Yeah. Just time to move on. I really enjoyed playing with Eenor, and I really enjoy Eenor as a person. I just think we had sort of reached a plateau in what was happening within the band creatively. And I think we needed to bring someone in to kind of step it up a little bit. And all these different projects I do with Oysterhead, Primus, Bucket of Bernie Brains, this thing with Adrian Belew and Danny Carey (Tool), these are very distinct things. Primus is those three guys, Oysterhead is those three guys, all those other bands are those individuals. And I feel like this band should be more... I hate to say whimsical, but it should be what I feel like doing at the time. Otherwise I'll just never have that. I really missed that all those years with Primus. Next time I go out with the Frog Brigade it could be totally different. We did a show a couple of weeks ago where Skerik and Mike [Dillon] couldn't make it. It was me and Paulo, and a cello player and a violinist and it was amazing. We had a great time. It was the guys who were on the record [Purple Onion], there's a song called, "Barrington Hall" it was that same line-up. It was awesome. So I might pop out with that some time. So I don't think it should necessarily be etched in stone just because of personal reasons. It should be about the music. You know what I mean?
Eenor By Jaci Downs
Definitely, but sometimes that can be tough.
It's very tough. The decision to move away from Eenor was really tough. And it was a long and thought out process. I went back and forth on it for a long time. It was not an easy thing. I wish that we would have had a conflict, because it would have been a lot easier.
Right. I also heard that Mike Dillon might be joining up with The Polyphonic Spree, do you know anything about that?
No, I don't.
That could have just been a piece of crap I heard, I'm not sure. What about Kehoe, your new guitarist?
[Kehoe is formerly of the band MIRV and has toured with Jerry Cantrell]
Kehoe By Jaci Downs
Well Kehoe is with us now. I've known him, I suppose, since high school. He's a monster. He's an extremely creative person, and an extreme performer. He hasn't even blown fire yet; wait 'til he starts blowing fire.
I'll look forward to that tonight.
I won't do that indoors.
Good point. When you say that you like to keep it open for Frog Brigade, when you are thinking about personnel, like let's take Skerik for instance. Did you search Skerik out as piece to your puzzle, or did you guys sort of gravitate toward each other? You seem to have very similar and complimentary stage personas.
Well, the whole Frog thing was sort of an accident. You know I did Oysterhead and all of a sudden everybody is starting to ask me to put together bands for their festivals. So most people know the Frog Brigade story by now, but I played that Mountain Aire (2000) with the guys that came together with MIRV, Skerik, two drummers - Tim Alexander (Primus) and Jack Irons (Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers). And me and Skerik have just always sort of stuck by each other, but Skerik wasn't even one of the original thoughts. I was gonna have three drummers. But the organizers thought it might be too heavy, like I might be busting some Slayer on them or something. So they suggested I change it up, so I just called it Frog Brigade just for that one show. And I kinda dug it, and now it's sort of just become this thing. But it was suggested that I play with somebody who is kinda known in that community. And I had known Skerik through that Oysterhead show, so I was like, "Sure bring him on down and we'll see what happens." And we've become great friends. I like playing with people I can learn from, and I learn from him, I learn from Mike Dillon. You know me and Paulo are sort of learning a lot about each other now because it's still new, and that's great.
How about Buckethead, how did you guys come to know each other?
I've known Buckethead since he was 19. I just met him. Joe Gore (Senior editor of Guitar Player magazine at the time), an old friend of mine actually introduced me. He was like, "Oh you gotta meet this kid. He's amazing, he's incredible." He is exactly the same way he is now. I don’t wanna spill the Buckethead beans so you know.
Buckethead By Dr. Shouse
He's very odd... odd in a good way. Quite a character, even in "real life." [Laughing that slightly maniacal Les laugh]
Did you guys record a CD? A Bucket of Bernie Brains CD, is that right?
Yeah, it's not quite finished yet. The music's done, but I have to finish my vocals.
Any idea when it will be out?
Probably around January. I started working on this Primus thing so I got side tracked.
Prior to your Primus days did you try out for any major bass jobs?
Right, what really happened with that? I've heard some varying accounts of that.
I just didn't fit. I wasn't the guy for the part. And they knew it. They were like, "Who the hell is this weirdo." I remember talking to James [Hetfield] about it one time, because we were hangin' out there for a while. And he made some comment on VH1 that I was too good or some shit.
By Jaci Downs
That's the comment I heard.
That's him being polite. I go, "Ahh fuck you, you thought I was a weirdo." And he laughed it off. He thought I was a weirdo.
[Les starts laughing] Well I don't think I would have lasted.
Like you said, just not the right fit I guess.
No, not at all.
By Jaci Downs
Moving back to you personally, I believe I read that you lost hearing in your left ear, is that correct?
In my right ear. Some of my high frequency from a scuba diving accident.
Does that affect your bass playing in any way?
Not really. It affects me socializing with large groups of people. It's hard for me to discern syllables sometimes. Like if there are a lot of people talking, especially woman's voices, I just can't hear. So I try to kind of aim my left ear at people.
And you have a son, just one son is that right?
I have a son and a daughter.
Do they like your music?
Yeah, they like Daddy's music. They like Tom Waits, my son went through a huge Beatles phase a few years ago. They're big on Harry Potter right now.
I'm curious now. You have very distinct subject line, and demeanor and angle that you take on things. Could you say that there is anything specific that you sort of draw this darker stage persona from? Or is it just a reflection of you?
Well I would assume it's all a reflection of me. The people I like to work with as well, they are not pretentious people. When you see them on stage, it may be sort of a hyperextension of their character, but it's them. And it somewhat is me as well. You know I'm not Mr. Zippidy doo-daa all the time, but for the most part I get on stage and it's like Halloween. You know you step into a character, and that's why I like wearing interesting garb or whatever. It helps me get out of my daily life.
Skerik By Jaci Downs
With these festivals, I know it's obviously different than your Primus days, do you find anything in particular that you get out of this grassroots organization?
If anything it takes me back to the old days of Primus, because we were involved in a lot of things that were similar to this. Not necessarily as much tie-dye and hackeysacks, or whatever. But the early Lollapalooza and stuff had a vibe like this. When we did the Public Enemy/Anthrax tour, sure it's a different type of music, more aggressive, but it had that sort of gathering of cultures type of thing. To me it reminds me of the early days of Primus. There was an excitement to it, something new. It's kind of exciting, I like these festivals. I like seeing that there are young people out there not just a bunch of people my age that are actually interested in music that is music and not some sort of fashion statement. I said that at the Jammys a handful of years ago. Because I was truly and honestly surprised... and just extremely pleasantly surprised - touched by the whole thing. It touches me. Maybe not as much as it did three years ago, but it still touches me to come out. You know you turn on the radio, it's like, "What the hell is going on?" But when I think about it, in the early days of Primus we didn't listen to the radio. We didn't give a shit about the radio. And then you get on the radio and you start listening to it going, "Oh ya I hear myself, and I'm hearing some of my friends." And then all of a sudden you're concerned about the radio and you're concerned about MTV. And this sort of brings me back to, "Wait a minute, we're a subculture." We've always been a subculture, and not by choice, but because that's what we are. And this is a nurturing environment for that, and I'm very happy it exists. And I'm happy to see that it appears to be growing.
Definitely. I definitely think so. In my job I see that clearly.
That's great. 'Cause man, lord knows we need some change in many facets of popular culture.
Frog Brigade By Jaci Downs
That more or less brings me to my last question; I know you kinda gotta get going. In speaking about society and media, do you have any comments or thoughts about Clear Channel?
Well, obviously it's a drag that we have this entity that is monopolizing media in general. But I don't think it's the first time we've seen this. Maybe I'm wrong, I'm not as knowledgeable about this as I probably should be, or could be. But it seems to me that these things come and go in cycles and I think that Clear Channel is going to get to the point where they are promoting all these pop acts and what not. And a lot of things are already fizzling. They are going to start losing money, and they are gonna start selling off some of these things and some of the grassroots people are going to come back into it. It just seems to kind of come and go in waves.
I guess that's life, things go in cycles.
Yeah. I read this Ian Copeland book this last year. And he's coined the term "New Wave." And at the time it was a very powerful thing, and then it became "Pop" and all that. But he was working out of Atlanta I believe, pretty staunch southern rock type agency and he was trying to bring over these British acts. And his company was like, "We don't wanna hear any of that punk rock shit." And it wasn't punk rock. It was what he called "New Wave." He tried to turn them onto to Dire Straits, and they were like, "Yeah we don’t want this punk rock shit." But it came in and just took over. It changed things. And every now and again that stuff happens. And I think it will happen again, and hopefully it will balance out this Clear Channel thing.
I hope so.
But there's always something. There's Tickemaster, there's Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting. But this is a subculture, what we got going here, it's a subculture. And when it becomes popular then it becomes pop-culture and then we are in the Big Machine. Then this (High Sierra – everything all around us) is the Big Machine. The big machines all started as little machines.
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