Les Claypool: Once Upon a Time in the West
In the midst of his first off season in three decades, and with rescheduled Primus and Oysterhead dates on the horizon, Les Claypool makes the most of his unexpected family time to create a new short film with his son Cage and Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo.
Les Claypool has a bunch of projects—across a number of different mediums—he’s ready talk about. But first he’d like to offer a dad joke. “To occupy my time last year, I bought this trailer that we sold high-end hot dogs out of at our tasting room because you couldn’t serve wine without some form of food,” the bassist says with a chuckle while discussing his winery, Claypool Cellars. “We got this giant fiberglass hot dog, so I thought this interview should actually be for Relish magazine.”
It’s a winter afternoon, and Claypool is calling from his longtime home in Sebastopol, Calif., where he’s spent his first “season off” in over 30 years—after COVID-19 forced him to postpone a busy slate of tour dates that included a planned Rush tribute with his genre-less trio Primus and a series of reunions with his early 2000s supergroup, Oysterhead. Yet, the bassist is still in a surprisingly chipper mood.
“I’ve always joked that’s it’s my retirement dream to have a hot dog stand,” he says. “And, now, I’ve been forced into all these alternative occupations—hot dog vendor, excavator operator. I bought an excavator and started clearing out my property—doing like Donald Trump said and sweeping the forest. It’s probably the only thing he’s ever said that I agree with. I have a good buddy who’s part of Cal Fire—he loads all this stuff into the airplanes that they then dump onto the fires. I was getting reports from him every day—clearing roads so that the fire department could come over, plug into my pond and use me as an outpost if they needed. I spent most of the summer on my excavator—it was actually very cathartic. I only almost killed myself on the side of a hill—carrying logs with an excavator—like three or four times. So there is a silver lining to this shit.”
Like so many Americans who had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic, Claypool, a father of two, is also quick to admit that another silver lining of the past year has been so much unexpected family time. And, given his creative genes, it isn’t surprising that his son Cage’s “boomerang period” has resulted in a brand-new artistic project: During the pandemic, the recent college graduate directed the short film Precious Metals. The idea originated after EMG decided to release a series of pickups to go along with Claypool’s Pachyderm custom basses, and the elder Claypool saw what could have been a simple promo as an opportunity to create an avant-garde, spaghetti Western film that also stars Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. The Claypools shot the film on their property, writing an original story in which the Primus frontman, clad in Western attire, is searching for metal before he encounters Trujillo. Fittingly, the seven-minute film ends with a bass duel between the hard-rock titans.
“Cage graduated from college right as the pandemic hit—he didn’t even get to walk across the stage. He’s got a degree in video-game design and he’s very prolific at all these gaming engines and 3-D design. But there weren’t any job opportunities, so he just stayed around the house, bought some camera gear and started making these amazing little films,” the clearly proud father says. “Doing an ad for a pickup is not really my thing but this turned into a pretty amazing opportunity. Because of COVID, he had time to develop this whole other vocation.”
Claypool’s children attended a Waldorf school growing up, and the Primus founder explains that a big part of the program’s philosophy was that students weren’t supposed to be exposed to the media. So, since his kids weren’t allowed to watch that much TV, Claypool would host an educational movie night once a week, where he would screen classics by Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Frank Capra.
“Growing up, my dad showed me the entire Sergio Leone trilogy,” Cage says, noting that this is his first formal interview. “In preparation for Precious Metals, before we even started shooting, I rewatched Once Upon a Time in the West in order to get an idea of how they shot it. Then, I went on some videography forums to see what kind of lenses he used and learned a bit about that. So I was trying to replicate the shots from those old movies as much as possible while using modernday equipment because I don’t have any lenses from the 1970s. We basically ended up shooting a bunch of footage on some brand new 100-millimeter lenses. We also wanted to have all the tropes of an old Western movie so the lip-sync is off and everything is grainy.”
“My daughter hated these old, blackand-white movies, but my son absorbed them and, because he’s been exposed to all these different people his whole life, he has a spectacular eye,” Claypool says. “He pulled off the Sergio Leone thing perfectly on this little film. He’s very easy to work with. He’s got a good demeanor, and he knows how to get the best performance out of people without making them feel awkward or intimidated. It kind of makes the old man puff his chest with pride.”
“None of the films he showed us were actually educational, in the true sense of the word, but they were films he felt would improve us creatively or were just good movies—Pulp Fiction was his idea of an educational film,” Cage adds with a laugh. “But, he knew so many facts about all these movies because he originally wanted to be a director or actor. It helped give me this unique perspective on filmmaking that’s different than other directors coming up who grew up watching Marvel films or Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Though Claypool didn’t host official album listening nights, Cage says music was always playing in the house or car, and his father’s selections had an indelible effect on him. He’d take in Django Reinhardt around the family dinner table and bonded with his dad over Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and even The Residents.
However, his daughter—who works as a fashion buyer and stylist—didn’t quite see eye to eye with the boys in her house. “She was always on top of whatever was popular at the time, while I don’t know anything about modern music,” Cage says. “She hated The Residents. She was absolutely terrified of them. So we both went in completely opposite ways in that regard. And it was kind of the same way with the educational films. When we watched Eraserhead, I thought it was so cool and she said, ‘This is freaky. Why the hell would anybody watch this?’”
The low-key sessions also marked the first time Claypool—who famously auditioned for Metallica in the 1980s—had actually played with Trujillo.
“We’d had wine and great conversations together, but we’d never played bass together,” Trujillo says, calling from his home in Los Angeles. “When I was in Suicidal Tendencies, I remember playing at Columbia University in the late ‘80s. Our show didn’t start until midnight and Primus was opening for a band called 24-7 Spyz, so I went down there to see them at 7 p.m. They were in this crappy RV with duct tape keeping everything together. It was really a very punk-rock existence for them back in the day. But each year, the opportunities for them got bigger and cooler. I’m just so proud of how Les has evolved with Primus—his style and his brand. The videos they make, and how independent everything feels, is just an extension of that. This whole thing was derived from him wanting to go against the grain, do something different and take a chance.”
Coincidentally, Trujillo says that he had been growing a mustache for about six months before he agreed to be involved in the film, which was perfect timing to play his character in Precious Metals.
“I authentically looked the part,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I sent him a photo and said, ‘I’ve got this stache going. So you’re in luck.’”
The filming also fortunately took place right after Metallica had performed a remote acoustic show, so Trujillo had just been tested for COVID.
“It all worked out, between having a negative test and having just had a work cycle with the band, and then having a day when it wasn’t gonna rain. Les had a couple of choices for weapons, shirts, hats and boots on his pool table, and I showed up ready to go. It was exciting but I had to roll up my sleeves and do the best I could and bring my A-game. I was getting into a studio space with one of the most badass bass players in existence. I’m glad I’ve been playing a lot.”
At the start of 2020, Claypool was scheduled to spend much of his year on the road with Primus, paying tribute to Rush by performing their 1977 classic A Farewell to Kings in its entirety as part of their A Tribute to Kings tour. Rush were a major influence on Primus, and Claypool says that the first concert he attended as a young music fan was on their late-‘70s Hemispheres tour. Fellow psychedelic hard-rockers Wolfmother and The Sword were booked for support slots and the run was set to honor Rush drummer Neil Peart, who passed away in early 2020. However, like almost every other concert on the books, the celebratory excursion was postponed and eventually rescheduled for this summer. (The 40-plus date outing is currently slated to kick off in Boise, Idaho on Aug. 10, and the run will stretch into October.)
Naturally, Claypool pivoted, putting his energy into his winery and fighting the California fires, though did get a chance to celebrate Rush during the lockdown, recording a take on their song “Anthem” as part of an all-star metal combo that included Tool’s Danny Carey, Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher, Mutoid Man/ Cave In’s Stephen Brodsky and Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez. He also pulled off a crowdless Primus gig in December, which was livestreamed from Claypool Cellars. The bassist admits that he wasn’t originally planning to film the show at his winery—Primus had never performed there before—but they “kept trying to utilize different environments and, because of COVID, everything was getting shut down.”
“We kept getting the big stop sign put up in front of our faces,” he says.
And, the default location turned out to be the perfect spot for Claypool to work off the year with guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander.
“It’s very reflective of my personality because it’s full of a lot of my junk—it’s like an old Western saloon—so we were very comfortable,” he says. “Throughout all this, we would commiserate with each other via text and over the phone because we had this huge tour planned last summer—it was probably the biggest tour year we had ever done, and it just all went away. Obviously, dealing with the coronavirus, crazy politics and, in Northern California, lots of fires—it was a bizarre year to say the least. We ended up having a really good time doing that show. We all took COVID tests, masked up and quarantined. We rehearsed a bit and did a trial run the night before, and it was the worst performance I think I’ve ever done—it was absolutely horrible. It was like one of those bad dreams you have. So we just scrapped it and decided to come back and do it again, and we did it the following night and it was amazing. We had a great time. Sometimes the planets aren’t aligned or the blood sugar’s low or the synapses aren’t firing properly or whatever. The first night was just a train wreck but [the show] turned out amazing, actually.”
For their set, the trio mixed a healthy dose of classics with their first takes on “Lacquer Head” and “The Antipop” since 2000. Both selections originally appeared on Primus’ guest-heavy 1999 set Antipop, which was recorded after Alexander left the group for a number of years, bringing an end to their classic ‘90s lineup.
“I’ve always had an issue with the Antipop record,” Claypool admits. “It was right before we went on our ‘hiatus,’ meaning that we broke up but we were too pussy to say that we broke up. It was not a fun period—none of us were really getting along, and it was an odd time. So making that record was very difficult on one level but it was a fun record to make on other levels because we worked with all these different friends as producers, so it was an interesting experiment. I finally sat down and listened to the record for the first time in a long time and said, ‘Holy shit, this is a great record.’ So we’ve come to terms and made our peace with that record.”
During their December broadcast, Primus also belatedly debuted another Antipop cut, “Eclectic Electric,” one of the tunes that they self-produced on the LP. “I’ve always wanted to play ‘Eclectic Electric’ because I like that song, and Herb killed it,” Claypool says. “Herb’s playing, in general, that whole evening just blew my mind. I had forgotten just how amazing it is playing with that guy. Our chemistry together is pretty spectacular, and I feel like, sometimes, I take that for granted. But after that performance, it definitely reawakened my awareness to what the three of us have.”
The powerhouse drummer is currently in the midst of his third go-around with Primus: He initially played with Primus during a seminal run from 1989-1996, rejoined the group in 2003 following that formal break and, after moving on once again in 2010, stepped back into the fold in 2013. In between Alexander’s latter two stints with the band, longtime Bob Weir collaborator Jay Lane, who was also part of an early incarnation of Primus in the ‘80s, held down the drum chair. While Primus has continued to traffic in the same jamband and festival circles that Claypool has explored on his own during the last two decades, the trio has also recently reconnected with the metal community that has long embraced them.
“I was once told by my good friend [director] Mark Kohr, ‘When Jay Lane’s in the band, I feel like dancing. When Herb’s in the band, I feel like marching,’” Claypool says. “Herb has this interesting swing to the way he plays—it’s almost an industrial thing. There’s a drive to it. He’s so influenced by world music that there’s almost this Bill Bruford-meetsStewart-Copeland-meets-Neil-Peart feel. He doesn’t really do the metal-drivingdouble-kick stuff; he uses it more as an accent. It harkens back to some of that ‘80s King Crimson stuff that we all really bonded over—there’s definitely this eclectic prog element to it, mixed with our alt sensibilities.”
With Alexander behind the kit, Primus even opened for Slayer on their farewell tour in late 2019, playing for moshing fans at coveted arenas like Madison Square Garden. “It’s been a long time since we’ve done one of those big, testosterone-laden shows—probably since the late ‘90s,” the bassist says. “We’re sort of like Zappa in that way—he was able to play here and there, within various genres, and not get pelted by rotten fruit. Part of the reason why we named [our 1995] album Tales From the Punchbowl was because we were always the turd in the punch bowl—the oddball—with everything we did. There were people who were stoked that we were on the Slayer thing and also people going, ‘What the fuck is this?’ We were once again the side dish.
Oddly enough, just as Claypool was dipping his toe back into the metal world, he was also revisiting the project that initially brought him fully into the jamband community, Oysterhead. The trio—which also includes Stewart Copeland and Trey Anastasio—had a number of high-profile dates on the books for 2020, marking their first appearances since a one-off set at Bonnaroo in 2006. They successfully pulled off two arena dates at Broomfield, Colo.,’s 1STBANK Center in February of last year, focusing mostly material from their lone 2001 record, The Grand Pecking Order. They also made a point to try out a cover of fellow power-trio Cream’s “White Room” and, for the first time, material from the three musicians’ catalogs: The Police’s “Voices Inside My Head,” Primus’ “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” and two selections from Anastasio’s multi-band repertoire, “46 Days” and “First Tube.”
“Trey said onstage that he’s been wanting to play ‘Tweakers’ for 30 years,” Claypool says. “We all came at it like, ‘How about we play this song?’ And then we morphed those ideas together. We were having so much fun putting on this old parachute again that I don’t remember there being talk of writing, but there was not talk of not writing.”
After Oysterhead’s dates were scrapped, the musicians recalled that, almost 20 years earlier, they were forced to cancel what was set to be their second and third-ever performances due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “We’re sort of the harbingers of disaster and doom,” Claypool says frankly, before shifting his tone and saying, “The shows themselves were solid, and we had a spectacular time. We were playing better than we’ve ever played, and we were starting to open new doors. It would have been great to see how the tour would have turned out because, as you move through these things, you become more and more comfortable. You start swinging for the fence a little more and hitting some over the fence. We all enjoyed it. I felt like the three of us were firing on all cylinders and connecting with each other even more so than in our earlier days. Our momentum got cut short by this wretched, fucking pandemic, which, as my wife would say, is a first-world problem. There’s obviously people that have suffered far more than Oysterhead not getting to play together for the rest of the year.”
And now, 15 months after the world stood still, Claypool is ready to return to the road. Primus’ rescheduled A Tribute to the Kings tour will occupy much of his time this fall, and the bassist will regroup with Oysterhead during the early part of the summer. Over Labor Day weekend, he’s also slated to return to Bonnaroo to help the festival celebrate its 20th anniversary, performing with Primus and, quite possibly, popping up elsewhere as well. The bassist has appeared at the Manchester, Tenn., event more times, and with more projects, than almost any other musician; he also helped expand the event’s reach exponentially its first year, when most of the lineup consisted of traditional jambands and roots-oriented acts. Superfly, one of Bonnaroo’s founding promoters, even put together Oysterhead for a New Orleans SuperJam, before the concept was turned into one of the festival’s signature offerings.
In the future, Claypool also hopes to work with Cage on some more film projects. The young filmmaker says that he’s already written a screenplay while he was “waiting out the clock on our quarantine” as a way to stay busy.
“I showed my dad—he’s excited about it and wants to plays one of the parts,” Cage adds, while also mentioning that he still has his eyes on the gaming world. “So I am excited to continue working on that.”
Meanwhile, the short film may lead to some more opportunities for Claypool to work with Trujillo. The Metallica member, who has a deep love of jazz and a few film credits to his name, says that playing with Claypool was “a breath of fresh air” and he mentions that he has long been curious about the improvisational music scene. And, he notes, his old band Infectious Grooves were essentially a jamband.
“Infectious Grooves built our albums around the jamband concept—someone may have brought in an idea that they developed at home, but it was about capturing the magic on tape,” Trujillo says. “We did these DIY videos, wearing crazy masks and sweating it up in the mountains. Obviously, a signature of how things are created in the Metallica world is that there’s a lot more cultivation—less improvisation and more development and nurturing of the songs, and that’s great too.”
He talks fondly about seeing Phish at Los Angeles’ Forum and moe. at San Francisco’s Fillmore, and sees parallels between those shows and the top-shelf metal acts he’s checked out as a fan.
“When I went to see Phish and had the pleasure of hanging a little bit backstage, I couldn’t believe the passion from the audience and the energy that was felt in that place—it was really intense,” Trujillo says. “I saw Slayer there—you had this mosh pit and a sea of people draining into a drain—and I felt the same energy from Phish. There’s this sea of people, many of whom are in costumes. It’s about feeding off the magic carpet ride.”
He then thinks back on his old friend, who has become such a key part of the jamband world. “It’s very cool that Les has become so important to that movement, that scene and that style,” he says. “And that’s why he’s fearless. When you look through Les’ lens, you see this fantasy world—it’s very visual and super experimental and super funkified. He has that old-school ‘let’s do this’ mentality.”