By Dennis Cook
When Les Claypool picks up the phone, I halfway expect him to speak in a deep baritone instead of the elastic Looney Tunes sound on his records. It's such a distinctive, theatrical voice that it seemed strange to me that he'd have it in day-to-day life. Yet there it was, rising and falling with Lewis Carroll brightness on the other end of the line. Like his songs, he emphasizes different syllables, different angles than your average bear. You don't expect that voice to say serious things, but very quickly one discovers a thoughtful, driven artist who's not scared of much of anything.
"You can sit there and draw a portrait or a bowl of fruit or a valley or whatever OR you can just sit there and doodle while you're on the phone and look at it afterwards and go 'What the hell is that?' That excites me much more, no matter how amazing the image may be that they're trying to capture," says Claypool. "I really like seeing people dance as close to the edge as possible. And trip a little bit, fall, and grab themselves. Sometimes they fall off, and that's just the way it is. At least I know they're human. We're living in an age where everything is so packaged and canned."
The Inspired Mistake
Claypool, one of the most distinctive and influential bassists in the past 30 years, first broke into the general consciousness in the early '90s with Primus, a hardcore-fueled power-trio to rival Rush or Cream but infused with a drunken, scatological humor that made them seem like an underground comic book come life, something R. Crumb might have dreamed up if he didn't hate all music after 1930. In fact, there's always been a strong hot jazz element to Claypool's music that's only gotten more pronounced in recent years as he's focused on projects like the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade and Bucket of Bernie Brains, his unpredictable collaboration with P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitar ultra-freak Buckethead, and former Primus drummer Brain.
Les Claypool by Soren
Giving himself a field commission of Colonel, Claypool has emerged with a scattershot musical profile that swirls jazz, improvised music, and world beat into rock that flies in the face of mainstream appeal. It's unlikely you'll hear any of Les' earthy, ridiculously engaged groups on mainstream radio. The 21st Century Les Claypool epitomizes the diversity and improvisational daredevil-ism of festivals like Bonnaroo and High Sierra, where his heady cross-pollination of genres has made him a regular. At the bottom of everything is a hunger for inspired mistakes that makes the music glow in fresh ways.
"I think that's the basis of what a lot of people in the jam scene want," observes Claypool. "It's so funny since I've become involved in the jam world I get flak from people in other camps. Primus never fit in with anything, yet we kind of played with everybody. We did the Lollapaloozas. We did the Ozzfests. We did the H.O.R.D.E. fests. There are elements of each camp that really dislike the other camps. And there are people who float from camp to camp and just really enjoy elements of all. That, to me, is what it's all about. The world is getting smaller and smaller, and people and cultures are interacting more than ever. Musically, it's that way as well. Unfortunately, there are still those people who stigmatize various things and won't cross certain boundaries. For me, with the jam scene, I really admire the notion of experimentation and freedom and how it's embraced no matter what it is."
Les Claypool by Dave Vann
The Road Ahead
Primus hasn't released a new album since 1999's Antipop. Despite being at the top of their game commercially, he put the band on the back-burner and embraced the emerging jam scene with open arms. But, being an inspired weirdo, those arms also gave the hippie-centric audiences a rough reach-around, puncturing the noodling with bursts of Zappa-style chaos and a hard-edged attack that's decidedly non-patchouli. In the last half-decade, Claypool has experienced the most diverse creative patch of his career, and 2006 looks to be the most intense, varied year yet.
Les Claypool by Jay Blakesberg
His new album, Of Whales and Woe, was released in May. This summer saw the publication of his first novel, South of the Pumphouse, and this fall ushers in his directorial debut, Electric Apricot: The Quest For Festeroo, a screamingly funny fake documentary about a struggling jamband's attempts to cut their first album and perform at a major summer festival. If it seems like a lot to juggle, Claypool doesn't think so.
"I've always had a knack for looking at Point A and Point Z and knowing how to get there, knowing the most efficient route," says Claypool. "Whether I'm directing a film or working on a crew with a bunch of carpenters back in the day or playing bass or even playing drums in [Electric] Apricot, I noticed I'm good at grabbing the ball and running with it. I've always had that get-in-there-and-carry mentality."