Les Claypool: Pulsating Poetry Paintings

Mike Greenhaus on August 5, 2021
Les Claypool: Pulsating Poetry Paintings

The Primus bassist releases his first NFT with the help of his newest collaborator—his son Cage

Les Claypool has ventured into the NFT game. After shying away from playing music in general during the global pandemic, the Primus frontman has released “Self Within A Self”—the first in a series of pulsating poetry paintings”—based on one his own original works. The NFT is a collaboration with his son Cage, a recent college graduate who has grown into one of the bassist’s closest artistic collaborators since COVID-19 reared its head in the U.S.

“One golden nugget out of this last year-and-a-half of a shitstorm is that it’s really been great as far as me having a pretty amazing, creative, working relationship with my son, Cage,” Claypool says, while calling from his studio in Northern California. “My son graduated from college with a degree in game design and digital 3D environments. He was poised to go get a job and he had designed this game with some friends; they were supposed to be a part of this big convention that got cancelled. They were being showcased by Microsoft and this and that. And, then COVID came in and it just shut everything down. So, it kind of put him in a position where he started making these short films, and now he’s realizing he wants to direct film. He and I have been collaborating and all this stuff and he’s been doing tons of stuff for me and for Primus.”

A few months ago, Cage directed a short film, Precious Metals for his father—which co-starred Metallica’s Robert Trujillo—and the young filmmaker is currently in the process of turning the elder Claypool’s new paintings into a new, immersive experience.

“Essentially, I will make a really high-quality scan of one of his paintings and then I will sculpt it,” Cage says. “I try to stay as true to his paintings as possible because I am using it for the texture, but I just give it depth so that we can have this ‘2.5d painting experience.’ It’s still a painting; you can’t look at the other side of this model. It’s just this flat thing. But it’s been sculpted out to be half a dimension. From there, I just designed a surreal background to put it into. I was really trying to design something that wouldn’t take away too much from the art, but is also interesting. And it ended up paving the way for the ones that are coming out later. For those, I thought more about the environment and made them a bit more intricate and dynamic.”

Cage says that he has already completed two pulsating poetry paintings” to be released as NFTs and that more are on the way. His close connection with his dad already helped him zero in on the project’s video aspects; he describes the relationship between the pieces he’s currently working on as similar to a pair of selections on a traditional album.

“My dad wanted to be a filmmaker originally,” Cage says. “He’s directed films so he’s given me tips along the way. But, really, he’s mostly interested in just me being expressive creatively and he is encouraging me to do my own thing with these. Basically, how our process ends up working is that he paints a picture and then he writes a song that’s inspired by that picture. And then, I take the picture and pitch him some ideas. Sometimes he helps redirect me. With the second NFT, I was like, ‘Maybe it should be in the ocean,’ and he said, ‘I don’t want the background to be too distracting so maybe we should try this.’”

The Claypools are also working together on some new visuals for Primus’ upcoming A Tribute to Kings tour, which will honor their longtime heroes Rush. As Cage explains, the prog-rock trio were one of the many bands he and his father bonded over at home. “They’re Primus elements in a Rush setting or a Rush setting in a Primus style,” Cage hints.

The Pulsating Poetry Painting series is being released in collaboration with YellowHeart, a NFT marketplace for music, ticketing and community tokens. It will be available for purchase through both crypto and credit card payments.

The Claypools say the “bent noir” acrylic paintings series will eventually evolve into a new original Claypool album. A statement from the musician’s camp explains that “Each video moment has accompanying bonus downloadable content including a HI-RES of the video, Wav file of the music and the original painting. The blending of traditional mediums with a digital format will offer a truly unique artisan NFT experience, providing many layers for fans to peel back, discover and enjoy the evolving visual album experience by Les Claypool.”

In advance of the A Tribute to Kings tour, which will kick off at Boise, ID’s Ford Idaho Center on Aug. 10, Les Claypool spoke with Relix about his first NFT, working with his son and how Rush has finally gotten Primus excited about rehearsing.

“Self Within a Self” is your first venture into the NFT world and also the first new music that you’ve released since before the pandemic. What initially inspired you to explore this new medium?

It’s funny. I’ve talked to a few other musicians during COVID and everyone just is always asking me, “What have you been doing during all of this? Have you been in the studio? Are you writing?” And I just was dead, creatively. With all that was going on in the world with COVID—and all the political shit and whatnot—it was the first time in 30 years that I had no musical flow. I had no desire to go into the studio. I was barely playing my instrument; I ended up buying an old excavator and carving fire trails into my property to keep the flames from [engulfing] the forests out here.

But one thing that did happen to me is I started painting. So I had all these paintings and then, I started talking to a buddy of Reuben Raffael (Zoltron), who’s done a lot of posters and stuff for us over time, and I said to him, “Hey, what can I do with these paintings? Should we make some lithographs or posters or silk screens or whatever?” And then this whole NFT thing started popping around. He was actually involved with that—he’s working with [longtime Bay Area artist] Ralph Steadman and Roger Dean, who did all the Yes covers. We started talking about these NFTs and I thought, “OK, I could do this NFT thing.” And, of course, my son got involved and started animating these pieces. And then it became a moving picture, and I put music to it—music and some verses. We call them “pulsating poetry paintings” because they’re not quite like videos. I don’t know shit about this whole NFT thing. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I made these little things with my son and we’re putting them out there.

It sounds like you have a well of paintings to draw on. How many “pulsating poetry paintings” do you hope to create?

Right now, we have two that are completed. As far as the paintings themselves, I’m in a room and I’m looking at about 7 of them here and there’s a couple more out there [in the other room] as well. So I got about a dozen of them at this point, but Cage has only animated two of them, and I’ve only put music to two so far.

Primus and all of your other musical projects have always had a pronounced visual element and you also have studied film and cinema. Before the past year, did you ever paint professionally or even just as a hobby?

No. I never have. I remember, years ago, my kids bought me a little-paint set and an easel because I had mentioned something like, “Someday, when I’m an old guy, I want to sit around painting things.” But I didn’t bust it out until the pandemic. I just went to the art store, bought a bunch of materials and sat down and started doing it. It’s all black and white because I’m very much into the look of the old black velvet paintings and also just film noir itself. I’m an old classic film buff so that’s kind of where my eye goes.

When you spoke with Relix earlier this year, you mentioned that you used to host educational movie nights for your family when your children were growing up. Now that you have worked with Cage on both the short film Precious Metals and these NFTs, have you found that some of those educational exercises helped you to have a creative short hand?

Yeah. The thing about working with my son is that we speak a similar language. I can make references to a Kubrick film or a piece of art or something and, because he’s exposed to a lot of that stuff through me, he knows exactly what I’m talking about. Right now, he’s working on a bunch of visuals for the video screens for this upcoming A Tribute to Kings tour that Primus is doing. And he’s just coming up with some amazing stuff.  And it’s funny because we’ll sit there and I can make that Kubrick-esque comment and he’ll know exactly what the hell I’m talking about.

And, as we move along through life here, I’m finding he’s been turning me onto stuff that I wouldn’t normally discover. We always refer to Mandy, which is that film that Nicolas Cage did a couple years ago. It’s a psychedelic horror film and it is amazing—the visuals and whatnot, and even soundtrack. And I would have never seen that if it weren’t for him. 

When you decided to eventually use your paintings for this project, what drew you to NFTs instead of a more traditional video format?

It is finally a tangible way that we, as people who make copy-written material, can release stuff onto the planet. It can be tracked; we can get compensated again. And the notion of that is very exciting to me, even though I do still have a hard time wrapping my head around it. I mean, I know the Kings of Leon released their last album through the NFT format.

So it’s a good thing now that there’s this format. It’s like being a carpenter and one day they say, “Hey, you’re gonna get paid for building these houses again after building them for free for 10 years.” [Laughs.] It’s an incredible notion, and the whole blockchain world and the potential of it really excites me.

An interesting mix of musicians have released NFTs, from Steve Aoki to Al Jardine.

I kept telling the guy that we worked with over at YellowHeart, Josh Katz, “What am I supposed to do?” He said, “Just create whatever you want, and we will find an avenue for this.” And I was like, “OK, here you go—we have these little miniature films.” It reminds of when, years ago, Primus did a CD-ROM for Tales from the Punchbowl. We spent all this time—all this money—and we worked with the same guys that did The Residents’ Freak Show one because that was a big influence for us. The same people who did our CD-ROM also did the Bowie one, which didn’t do very well at all. But we created this incredible thing. It is this environment where you can cruise to different islands and experience the songs visually and interactively. But it just never caught on, even though we made this amazing thing. It really didn’t do anything except for scratch this creative itch for us. So this might be something—or it might not be something. [Laughs.]

But, I think, this thing that me and my son made is interesting and it is also my first foray back into creating original music again since the pandemic. We’ve been playing our asses off, learning all these fresh tunes for the Kings tour, which has been incredibly challenging and actually great for the band. With Primus, we always say, “We’re the band that never rehearses.” We write these songs, learn the songs, go on tour and then that’s it. When we would get together to rehearse for our tours, we’d play for a few hours then go out and get a nice dinner and drink. We used to hang.

Whereas, now, I go to this new rehearsal space, and we’re playing hour after hour after hour to get this shit right. And it’s been very good for us—it is bringing us back together after all this time and challenging us. We have a common interest, which is Rush. That’s what brought us together in the first place. We always have this kind of collective prog-element to what we do. And that all came from the first time that the three of us played together—one of the things that we were able to just jam on was Rush tunes.

Primus did a livestream from your winery this past winter, but your previously scheduled Rush tribute tour—like almost every tour—was delayed over a year. Did that unexpected break change your perspective on how the run should look and feel?

It’s a blessing and a curse because I was one of those Rush fans who, for many years, went to all those shows. And I know how scrutinizing Rush fans can be so we have to be on this shit. There’s a reason why they were Rush; they were fucking good. And they played this crazy shit. We’re trying to learn it, and it’s coming along and I’m excited. But it’s also very daunting because we know we have to really land it.

Rush was actually the first arena band you saw live, right?

My first concert was the Hemispheres tour, and that’s one of the reasons why we chose A Farewell to Kings. I remember being a 14-year-old kid watching the Rocinante fly through the black hole. I remember just sitting there, urinating in my pants with excitement. And it’s really stuck to me. So it’s a full circle thing. It’s an honor. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to go out and do this and hopefully do it well. [Laughs.]

As you mentioned, Cage is providing some visuals for the run. I am sure that was another unexpected benefit of the lockdown.

Well, we were trying to get the visuals from the Rush camp—the originals. But a lot of that stuff is just in storage, and we just didn’t want to pester them too much about this stuff. And it hasn’t been able to come to fruition. So, I just said, “Well, let’s get Cage on it.” He’s on it. And he’s happy to do it.

[Surviving Rush members] Alex [Lifeson] and Geddy [Lee] have been super supportive. Alex loaned Ler one of his guitars. It’s been very cool. It’s been a good way for us to kind of reconnect with those guys, too. I keep in touch with Geddy fairly regularly, but we have been even more in touch with those guys recently, especially with Alex.

As you mentioned, you hadn’t written any new music for a while before this NFT. When it came time to write music for these “pulsating poetry paintings,” did you have a specific thematic inspiration?

Well, most of the time, the visuals for these projects—whether it’s Primus or Frog Brigade or Oysterhead—come from the music and the lyrics. But, what was interesting with this is that I would look at these paintings and then write [from the perspective of] a character. I asked myself, “What are they saying?” I would write a little verse and throw some music under it—hence a poetry painting that’s pulsating. So, these aren’t full-blown songs.

The process is very Frog Brigade-esque. It’s me in a room by myself, just making these musical pancakes. I’ll mix a bunch of shit together and see what happens. They could be full-blown songs at some point. They’re catchy. But right now they are just about a minute or so each.