By Mike Powers
Les Claypool has a good reason to be a happy man these days. Not many artists have joined forces with such an eclectic mix of musicians as he has over the years. Scan down Claypool’s roster of collaborators from the past and you’ll see names such as Charlie Hunter, Jerry Cantrell, Trey Anastasio, Henry Rollins, Stewart Copeland and Tom Waits. Oh wait, don’t forget a little band called Primus either. It’s quite possible that he may just now be hitting full stride with his latest concoction, Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Claypool feels that Frog Brigade, which consists of Jeff Chimenti (Ratdog) on keyboards, Todd Huth (Primus/Sausage) on guitar, Skerik (Critters Buggin/Tuatara) on saxophone, Jay Lane (Rat Dog/Sausage) on drums and Eenor (Channel 23) on guitar, is his finest creation yet.
After successful summer and fall stints, Les Claypool is taking Frog Brigade back on the road with Galactic, Lake Trout and Drums & Tuba on this year’s SnoCore Icicle Ball. This diverse lineup of music is currently sweeping across the country through the end of February. Claypool seems quite proud of being part of a tour that offers a wide range of music for everyone. He is eager for new audiences to get a taste of Frog Brigade at every stop. Last Friday night, as the SnoCore Icicle Ball touched down in Santa Cruz, Les Claypool took some time to discuss frogs, friends and the jam band world that he has suddenly been welcomed into.
Powers: How has the SnoCore Icicle Ball been treating you and your latest creation, the Frog Brigade? It’s only the third night so far on this tour, right?
Claypool: Yes, we’re on night number three, Vegas and then LA and now Santa Cruz. It has been going incredibly well. It’s been awesome. It’s basically something that I started off doing for fun. I pretty much built a band out of the most incredible guys I could possibly find. I didn’t really want a six-piece band, but it just ended up being a six-piece band because these guys are all awesome.
Powers: Now you originally debuted the Frog Brigade at the Mountain Aire festival last Memorial Day Weekend over in Calaveras County. At the time it seemed like it was only going to be a one-time deal. Was that the original plan?
Claypool: It was kind of a one-time deal. I liked the name Frog Brigade because it lent itself to a lot of cool imagery with the whole frog thing. I originally was going to do the two drummer thing with Herb and Jack Irons, so I was gonna call it the Les Claypool Thunder Brigade. Michael Bailey from Bill Graham Presents said to me that it may sound a bit too heavy for the Mountain Aire crowd and to perhaps try something a little different that had to do with the event itself. Since it was home of the Calaveras County Frog Jump... hence the Frog Brigade and then it evolved into Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade.
Powers: I remember watching your set at Mountain Aire and you explained to the crowd that if this was a Primus concert, your fans would have shown their appreciation by throwing stuff at you on stage. You seemed pretty psyched that the Mountain Aire crowd was simply grooving to your music.
Claypool: [laughs] Ah that sounds like something I may say...
Powers: Frog Brigade appears to be drawing somewhat of a new crowd for you. There are more than just hard-core Primus fans attending your gigs these days. The jam band crowd really seems to be won over with your new act. What’s your take on that?
Claypool: It seems like it’s a very interesting crossover. I think the world is very much embracing this whole concept of musicians going out and playing their instruments and playing music for music as opposed to music that has something to do with some form of image or imagery. I think it has just fallen into the jam band realm. I think the original thought of jam bands, at least from my perspective - which was an outside perspective and I’m even friends with the Phish guys and what not [laughs] - was like Phish, Leftover Salmon and Widespread Panic... bands like that. Now I’m seeing obviously with my band, which is an edgier sort of thing, Zappa meets King Crimson meets Floyd, and with bands like The Disco Biscuits, Lake Trout and even Galactic, which is a New Orleans funk band... I think that the category and term jam band is attracting all these other forms of music which can sort of spin around the nucleus that is the jam band scene.
Powers: Jam bands do seem to have a pretty positive scene...
Claypool: Yes! It’s almost boundary-less music. It’s music for music’s sake. It doesn’t seem that any of it is formulated. In fact it’s anti-formulated.
Powers: Did the Oysterhead project open your eyes a bit more on this scene? It definitely awakened the jam band audience to your world some more.
Claypool: Definitely. To tell you the truth, for the past couple of years I’ve been pretty bored with music in general... just bored with it. I went and did the [Oysterhead] thing in New Orleans and hung out at Jazz Fest for a week and it was just amazing. It just completely opened my eyes to a world that I didn’t think really existed, at least anymore. I think a lot of my own little world, which is Primus, has been sucked into this big angry testosterone rock world. It’s really in a place right now that’s pretty ugly. I’m not into it anymore, at least not at this time of my life or at least not that scene... it’s just not my scene now. I was becoming very frustrated watching all the pop bands on TV... well not actually watching these bands on TV, since I don’t watch MTV or any of that shit [laughs]. I was just becoming very frustrated with it all. Then going down and doing the Oysterhead thing and seeing the crowds and the way they respond to what you’re doing as opposed to what you’re wearing or how you’re acting was amazing. Then being asked to put together something for Mountain Aire and later the Gathering of the Vibes, I thought it was as a good a time as any to start doing some other shit, especially since Brain (Primus drummer) was obviously finding interests in other places.
Powers: Now tonight in Santa Cruz is the closest to a hometown show that you have on this tour, since you just played New Year’s in San Francisco. What’s your take on the San Francisco music scene these days? This sort of music seems to thrive in the Bay Area.
Claypool: Yah, it’s just weird though. The scene itself in San Francisco is just bizarre and non-existent for young bands and places to play... it’s just so scattered now. San Francisco is an interesting place. It’s always been such a nice culturally diverse environment, which it still is, but there’s a lot of money there now and a lot of dot com’s so it’s a little different than it used to be. I’m finding that the North Bay is almost more exciting, getting up into Petaluma, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, but that may be just because I live there. [laughs] Part of the concept for me doing this too, Frog Brigade, was for me to organize some of these bands and events and what not. Now I’m not around the Bay as much and potentially I’m gonna start working on some Oysterhead stuff.
Powers: Is there a future for Oysterhead?
Claypool: We’re talking about it. Stewart was at the show last night. I talk to Stewart all the time, we’re good friends. I’ve been talking to Trey and he’s keen on doing it. We just have to figure out how and when. It’s looking like we’re going to try to get some stuff together in April.
Powers: An Oysterhead tour?
Claypool: We want to write some music and head into the studio.
Powers: What about Jazz Fest? Will there be a round two with Oysterhead in New Orleans?
Claypool: Not this year. We got offered it for this year, but I think we would rather just record.
Powers: Now you’ve played with and on an eclectic mix of bands and tours over the years... U2, Deftones, Charlie Hunter, Filter, Disco Biscuits, Mountain Aire, Gathering of the Vibes and now Galactic.
Claypool: Don’t forget Lollapalooza or Woodstock!
Powers: That’s right! Lollapolooza ’93, Primus headlined right after Alice in Chains, right? How does it feel that you’ve pulled all this off with so many artists? Not many musicians can claim that.
Claypool: I’m an old man. [laughs] Actually I never think about it. But now I’m going to start writing my book tomorrow. [laughs] Really though, I’ve got some awesome memories and stories. It’s all-good. The future looks good too.
Powers: Do you see the Frog Brigade going on for awhile? Are you having fun?
Claypool: This tour, just look at this tour. The first night in Vegas I was watching the bands and the audience. It felt good. This tour just feels good. Last night we played in L.A.. L.A. as you know, they’re good crowds, but they’re usually more of an observing crowd. But last night in L.A. it was like a big party. Everyone was bopping and grooving. There were no crazy mosh pits, like a Primus show. There was a grooving energy.
Powers: Can you feel that energy on stage most of the time? Can you pick up the vibe of a crowd?
Claypool: It depends on the crowd. It’s funny, we did two nights in San Francisco last month, the 30th and New Year’s Eve. The 30th was the last night we did Pink Floyd’s Animals for the final time. That night... I don’t know if it was the whole audience getting stoned out of their minds getting ready for the Floyd thing or what it was, but it was like playing to a painting. It was like, “What the hell is going on here?” But then the next night, New Year’s, was insane! It was my favorite New Year’s. It was the best show I’ve ever played for New Year’s.
Powers: How about the intensity of the crowd at the late night House Of Blues’ show in Vegas last October? I saw you catching the overnight groove on stage at around 3 AM or so...
Claypool: Ha. That was whacked! It was weird. It was like one in the morning and we walked out to look at the audience and nobody was there. Twenty minutes later everyone leaves the Phish show and shows up at our show. Then of course Trey and Stewart show up for the first night and Kid Rock was hanging out backstage... that was bizarre.
Powers: Was that Oysterhead reunion planned?
Claypool: Well I knew that Trey would be there. So I called up Stewart and said, “Stewart come on in, come on out. Trey’s gonna be here and it will give us a chance to talk about what we want to do and what not.” So Stewart came out and I said to both of them, “Come on fellas!” Then we went out and jammed. I listened to the tapes of it and it was awesome!
Powers: Glad you had fun! You definitely capped off a great first night in Vegas for the Phish crowd. That weekend seemed like the Phish going away party for everyone, even though there was still a week left on that tour. What do you think of the Phish hiatus now? Both Primus and Phish seem to have stepped out of their various scenes that they helped create.
Claypool: Well, I think it’s healthy. It’s like Primus... it’s time. You might have a favorite book or film, but you can only watch or read it so many times before you have to let it sit and then go back and realize it’s your favorite still. You know what I mean? At some point everything gets a little stale and you have to step away from it. Otherwise you won’t produce good quality heart-felt stuff. That’s the way it is with Primus and I’m sure that’s the way it is with Phish. Trey has other stuff he wants to do. He’s doing this symphony stuff. He wants to do the Oysterhead stuff too. I don’t know what Fishman wants to do or Page. I was hanging out with Mike Gordon last week and he’s filming this thing we’re doing with Gov't Mule and he’s doing other little film stuff on the side. So I think it is just time. It’s happening with a lot of bands right now. Rage Against the Machine just broke up. The Chili Peppers are taking a hiatus. I just heard Newsted quit Metallica.
Powers: That’s right. There’s a bass opening for you!
Claypool: [laughs] There’s a bass audition for me!
Powers: Maybe a Mike Gordon and Metallica rumor is more appropriate.
Claypool: [laughs] That would be very cool actually! It’s just that time. It’s going to be interesting what transpires out of all this.
Powers: Do you think Phish will come back? Will any of these bands? Or is it an end of an era? Is music at a crossroads right now?
Claypool: I think Phish will come back. I just think it’s time for a breather. Music in general is looking for something new overall. I don’t want my kids to be flipping on the TV and be watching Brittney Spears or the latest pop group they put on because Kellog’s Cornflakes had some contest that put together a band. I guess its all just part of it. We’ve all had our thing. I listened to the Monkees when I was little kid. But, I’m excited that there are bands like Galactic and Lake Trout... and hell even the Frog Brigade! I’m bringing my kids to see Frog Brigade. Primus shows, I’d bring my kids, but would have to keep security around them... and Primus shows were pretty mellow. I didn’t bring them to the Family Values tour. Screw that. It’s just as violent backstage as it was in the audience. Everyone was flexing their egos. I’m just kind of over that scene.
Powers: When will the live Frog Brigade recording from the Great American Music Hall be released?
Claypool: I just finished mixing it. It is going to be a two part thing. Two sets. The first being a bunch of material and the next set will be strictly Animals. The first set is supposed to come out sometime this month.
Powers: Will it be on Interscope?
Claypool: Nope, it will be through my own label, Prawn Song. I’m off Interscope now. I went to Tom Whalley [Interscope Records Executive] and told him I wanted to do this stuff on my own. I wanted it to be my own thing. They don’t understand this scene. They would just screw it up. Tom knew that too. A major label should not be trying to pry into this market. So I’m doing it myself through Prawn Song. It’s homegrown, so of course I’m still approving artwork that needed to be approved two weeks ago. [laughs] We have it all mastered and ready to go... just waiting on artwork.
Powers: Will you go into the studio with the Frogs?
Claypool: I hope so. I’ve written a bunch of material. So it’s just a matter of whether it’s going to be Frog Brigade material, or Oysterhead material or Primus material. We’ll see what comes up. Oysterhead will probably come up first.
Powers: Can you handle more Oysterhead hype? It got crazy at last year’s Jazz Fest.
Claypool: You’re right, it got insane. We all thought we were going to play some club like Tipitina’s or some place like that. They’re trying to get us to come back and play a couple of nights at the arena down there. I don’t ever want to do any of that. I do realize that there is an inclination for Oysterhead to come out and play arenas and all that. I don’t want to do that. My favorite venues are the 2,000 seat theaters, like the Warfield. That’s a perfect example. If there was a Warfield in every city, I would play it. That’s all I would do. I love venues like that. I think to me, however I might get out-voted [laughs], if we do some Oysterhead shows it will be similar to the Saenger Theatre... small cool environments.
Powers: That’s certainly where the good vibe is. It’s great when an audience can actually see a band. The Saenger would be a great place for a Frog Brigade show.
Claypool: Yes! People sure can see you. Theaters are great. They’re designed to sound good, not for basketball.
Powers: The Saenger Theatre in New Orleans certainly is an amazing venue... just a beautiful place for a show.
Claypool: It sounds so good in there too. There are many of these theaters around, but the bummer is that a lot of them are seated unlike the Warfield’s floor. I just saw Crazy Horse there last week.
Powers: Amazing show! Neil Young just rocked. I was lucky to get in there for the second night thanks to a friend who had the hookup. It was quite the tough ticket.
Claypool: I went the second night as well. It did rock. I loved seeing Neil there. I’d much rather see shows there and play there too. To me, that’s awesome. Playing the Shoreline is just fine and there’s a lot of money. [laughs] It’s a great little ego boost to look out and see all these people. I saw Roger Waters there recently. It was great and marvelous, but would I rather have seen Roger Waters at the Warfield? Hell yah man! I would’ve paid twice as much to see that. [laughs]
Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade marches into the Fox Theatre of Boulder this Thursday night as the SnoCore Icicle Ball begins a three night fresh powder run in the mountains of Colorado. The tour moves into the Midwest and Northeast before wrapping up in Atlanta on February 23rd. For more information visit www.LesClaypool.com or www.SnoCore.com.
Special thanks to Jill and Peter of the Frog Brigade team and Heidi Robinson.
The Powers Interview Archive
Michael Kang | August, 2000
Karl Denson | September, 2000
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