As the leader of the geeky power trio Primus, Les Claypool somehow managed to turn his love of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart into a tangible career in rock music. Indeed: For the better part of three decades now, Les Claypool has stood tall as one of the strangest ducks in the rock 'n' roll pond.
With his impressive instrumental bass chops and irritating nasal vocal delivery, Claypool and Primus stumbled into success in the '90s with such hits as "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Tommy the Cat." When Primus went on hiatus in 1997, Claypool began collaborating with everyone from Buckethead to Stuart Copeland, and was even rumored to becoming a member of Metallica.
During a recent tour stop in Memphis, and in anticipation of tonight's show at the Palladium Ballroom, Claypool was kind enough to give us a few minutes to speak with him and pontificate on a number of these issues.
You've worked as a musician, a producer, an author, a director and an actor. What do you best want to be known for?
I like to think I am a good father. But when all is said and done, I am a bass player.
You've been praised for your technique. Do you think some people focus too much on the technique and miss out on a good song?
I don't really know. I would like to think that I'm not letting the playing get in the way of the composition.
Who are some of the bass players you most admire?
When I was first getting started it was people like Geddy Lee [Rush], Chris Squire [Yes] and Tony Levin [King Crimson].
I was kind of surprised to see King Crimson listed as one of your influences, but, yeah, Levin is an amazing player.
Levin is a great bassist and a great guy, too.
Your novel, South of the Pumphouse, came out in 2006. Were you surprised that the book received such positive reviews?
I don't think I got a lot of reaction to it. There wasn't a lot of press on it. I'm glad people liked it because it was a shitload of work. It's a huge undertaking to write a novel.
One critic compared you to Hunter S. Thompson. Hasn't the book been reprinted several times?
I think we are in our seventh printing.
Your film Electric Apricot has also been praised. Will you do more films in the future?
I would like to, but, y'know, making a film -- especially making that film -- was like climbing Mount Everest wearing a Speedo. It was tough. It was a lot of work. Just getting the film released was difficult. That being said, I would do it again. It would take some coaxing.
Over the years, you've often worked with Tom Waits. How did you guys end up working together?
I was a big fan many years ago. We asked him to be the voice on "Tommy the Cat." We were very excited when he responded that he wanted to do it. After that, he asked me to play on some of his stuff and we became friends. We've remained friends for many years.
Some critics have said Primus is one of the oddest bands ever to find mainstream success. Is such a badge of honor for you?
We were the guys who never expected to be on the radio. Or MTV for that matter. When that stuff happened, it was exciting and strange. I remember years later meeting abstract, avant-garde musicians and they would tell me how happy they were that we were successful. It is a badge of honor to have musicians like that say they've been influenced by you.
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Is it true that the guys in Metallica said you were too good to be in that band?
Well, that's what James [Hetfield] said in the VH1 documentary. But I saw him later and told him that was bullshit and that the reason they didn't want me in the band was that I was a weirdo. I just didn't fit with them.
Primus took a hiatus in 1997, and you were involved in many side projects and solo recordings. Why reform in 2003 and then again last year?
Well, I had finished up my latest solo venture and started looking around for other projects. Larry LaLonde was very anxious to do Primus, and he was very instrumental in pushing it forward. We started playing together and it was fresh and exciting, so off we went.
On this tour, are you playing songs from the entire Primus catalogue?
It's different every night. We have a new album in the works. We just started [the tour] last night, and we threw a few new songs at everybody just to test the waters. I think it went well.