Primus: Willy Wonka’s Wild Ride

Emily Zemler on November 18, 2014

As time shifts from one year to the next, three musicians stand on a dark stage at Oakland, Calif.’s Fox Theater. Massive lacquered candies—red, green and pink in color—hover over them. Chocolate bars are born in a factory projected on the video screen above the stage. The music, scant at first, resonates from a bass guitar, each note whomping and twanging with a certain purpose. The melody, plucked and then played with a bow, creeps into nostalgic familiarity. The crowd has heard this song before but not, as one might expect, on one of Primus’ many albums.

It’s New Year’s Eve 2013-14 and, as usual, Primus has decided to herald the changing of time by headlining a festive spectacle. This year, inspired by singer and bassist Les Claypool’s unyielding obsession, they have selected Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory as the evening’s theme, referencing both Roald Dahl’s series of children’s books and the 1971 film adaptation that starred Gene Wilder as the titular character. Primus is so invested in the evening’s premise that they are recreating the film’s entire soundtrack live, which is why the initial melody holds such a memorable association. This performance also marks the long-awaited return of drummer Tim Alexander, who last played with Primus at Outside Lands in 2008.

In that respect, the performance is also the beginning of something other than a new year. Primus, now back to the so-called classic lineup of Claypool, Alexander and guitarist Larry LaLonde, will release Primus & The Chocolate Factory with The Fungi Ensemble on October 21 via ATO. It’s the first full-length studio album to feature this particular lineup since 1995’s commercial breakthrough Tales from the Punchbowl, and the band’s eighth overall record. It is a strange, electric collection of songs that somehow feels inevitable, given the band’s affinity for colorful, funky, mad-scientist-like mayhem. For Claypool, it connects to something that’s interested him since childhood.

“I was very young and we went to the movie theater,” Claypool says of first seeing Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It’s now late August and the musician has recently finished a string of dates with his country project Duo de Twang. He claims uncertainty about where he is on any given day during the busy summer season, yet remembers the film with uncanny clarity. “I went and I sat down and I just remember the whole intro, with all the chocolate being made on the conveyor belts, with the little Kisses and the different elements of chocolate, and I was just mesmerized. I was hooked from the opening credits.”

Claypool was initially hesitant to rework the movie’s soundtrack as a Primus album because it would require him to utilize members of both his formative band and his solo group in order to truly bring the compositions to life. The bassist has repeatedly said that he wanted to keep his bands separate, but in the end, art trumped logic.

“This was a project I’d been thinking about for a while,” Claypool says. “I knew I wanted to take on some sort of sacred cow. One of the thoughts was actually to do Magical Mystery Tour, which I’m glad we didn’t do because I’ve now learned that The Flaming Lips have taken on Sgt. Pepper. The other thought was to do Wonka. So I combined the guys, and we started recording and then, we did the New Year’s show.”

Alexander was a key part of that creative process. However, he’d actually played very little music for almost five years when he rejoined the group at the tail end of 2013. After leaving Primus, the drummer worked with Maynard James Keenan’s band Puscifer for a period in 2010, but admits that he was burned out and uncertain about his artistic future.

“I wasn’t really liking playing music or drums,” Alexander says from his home in Northern Washington, where he lives with his wife and child, and has been recovering from a heart attack he suffered in July. “It was a pretty weird time for me.”

The drummer already had a long, complicated relationship with Primus. After playing with the alt-funk heroes since 1989, he stepped away from the band in 1996. The group added drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia in time for 1997’s Brown Album and 1999’s Antipop, before going on hiatus in 2000. Claypool, LaLonde and Alexander regrouped for a handful of sporadic, nostalgic tours between 2003 and 2008, but focused their jamband-oriented live performances on back-catalog songs instead of new material. Following Alexander’s departure, they recruited RatDog drummer and Furthur percussion- ist Jay Lane—who had clocked in time with an incarnation of Primus in the ‘80s—in 2010.

Lane played on 2011’s Green Naugahyde and, around the record’s release, Claypool told Relix, “We didn’t have the feeling of new doors with Tim [Alexander], unfortunately. Tim’s a great guy. He’s probably one of the most un-malicious people on the planet—or is it non- malicious? Anyway, we never really clicked [when he reunited with Primus]. The clicking that we had in the ‘90s—we [had] clicked it all out. That was our well that we had drawn from. I think we would have been going through the motions if we tried to do it with Tim again.”

Last year, after some soul-searching, Alexander decided to call the band and let them know he was available if they ever wanted him back. Coincidently, shortly after, Lane heard that Weir planned to focus on RatDog for most of 2014, and he gave Primus his notice, opening the door for Alexander’s return.

“It had been around five or six years since I had played with those guys,” notes Alexander, who has been doing much better since his open-heart surgery a month before. “I’d hardly talked with them. I got to that period where I was not sure what I was doing. I thought about maybe getting back into playing so I put it out there and allowed it to be whatever happened. I hadn’t heard from anyone for a while. And then, one day, Les called and said that things were changing with them and wanted to know if I was interested in playing again.”

Claypool admits, “He’d spent a lot of years not very excited about playing his instrument. I can relate to him, to an extent, because we’re all looking for the next mountain to climb, the next challenge. And you get to a point with what you’re doing where you feel like you’re chasing your tail and you have to find things that excite you and get you reinvigorated about what you’re doing. I’m always opening new doors because that’s what keeps me wanting to be on the planet. So I think, for all of us, this is another new door.”

If you are a hard-edged rock band interested in interpreting the soundtrack to an iconic children’s movie, then where do you begin? For Claypool, the logical beginning was “Candy Man,” a song with a charming swing in the movie that’s taken on a very different sensibility on Primus’ album. The musician got the song caught in his head and would play what he calls a “creepy riff ” over and over. It caused a domino effect, similar to when Claypool wanted to cover Pink Floyd’s “Pigs” and wound up performing their Animals album in its entirety. Suddenly, the musicians were working through classics like “Golden Ticket” and “Oompa Loompa Song.”

Mike Dillon and Sam Bass, who have played with Claypool in some of his solo projects, joined Primus in Claypool’s studio throughout the process last winter. The focus was split between creating vibrant, eclectic per- cussion and building interesting characters with Claypool’s gritty voice.

“Most of the arrangements, you have to tailor around the vocals,” Claypool says, admitting that he doesn’t have a real sense of when the musicians actually worked on the songs because his “hard drive is pretty fragmented these days.” The timeline of the process, al- though notable, isn’t as significant as the process itself.

“That’s what set the framework for the arrangements—my vocal approach,” he continues. “So I had my idea in my head of how I wanted most of it to go. You know, the film just barely touches on the dark elements of it. Roald Dahl wrote some dark shit. There’s a creepier element to the books. So we paid homage to the film, and especially to Gene Wilder, who I thought was amazing, but also delved more into what the books were about.”

Claypool didn’t actually reread the books or rewatch the film prior to embarking on this project, nor did he ask the other musicians to do so. He was vastly familiar with the material, having consumed it ravenously—and frequently—over the years, but Primus’ version takes on a life of its own. The album feels more like an ode to something that resonates with that old familiarity than a collection of covers. For “Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride,” a song connected to the film’s most notably terrifying imagery, Claypool turned on the vintage tape machine that the band used to record the album and asked Bass to just play the song on cello however he felt.

“That’s what I wanted it to be,” Claypool notes. “It’s the whole notion of the wondrous boat ride: It starts off as this beautiful thing and it becomes complete, frightening chaos.”

Alexander searched for a novel approach to the drums, as well. When you’ve played an instrument for 30 years, he explains, the motions become muscle memories rather than conscious intentions. He wanted to force himself into other methods so that the percussion wasn’t so automatic. To create this, the band surrounded Alexander with what was essentially a pile of stuff: old drums, pots, pans and bells. The positioning of any- thing familiar was intentionally amiss.

“It went back to the original meaning of a contraption, which is what a drum set initially was when they were first being put together in the early 1900s,” Alexander says. “Putting all these things together, I just had all these different sounds to work with them. It made me have to think about what I’m doing to create rhythms using all this stuff.”

“It was an amazing thing to see this guy who’s so well known for this approach to his playing to take that same individual per- spective and apply it to an incredibly unique pile of instrumentation, so to speak,” Claypool adds. “You look at it and you just laugh. We’d seal him in there—you couldn’t get out. You’d have to open a little door to get him out of there.”

Claypool notes, too, that LaLonde’s guitars are the perfect augment to these driving percussive sounds. “I love Larry because Larry is very tactile,” Claypool says. “He’s a very textural player. He’s not just driving his guitar up your ass. He’s one of these guys that knows how to throw his paint into the picture without covering the entire picture.”

Even for a band like Primus that has changed considerably over the years, the album feels like a departure. The core elements of the trio, particularly of this specific lineup, are there but the music contains an unexpected sense of foreboding. The bass lines creep and scatter, the drums are a propulsive backdrop of noise, and the guitars creak and howl. The lyrics, mem- orable to anyone who has seen the film, have new meanings in their new forms. The soundtrack’s most famous line rises anew as Claypool intones, “I’ve got a golden ticket.”

“To be honest with you, all the songs came pretty easy, as far as the vocals, except for that one,” Claypool says of “Golden Ticket,” which, here, has been altered into a thumping, almost cheery song. “I kept thinking, ‘How am I gonna do this?’ I like to step into the character. Even with my music, I’m always stepping into a character. It’s easier for me to do that especially in the early days when I was really self-conscious about my vocals. I spent many years telling the press, ‘I’m not the singer, I’m the narrator of Primus.’ I’ve become comfortable in my zone and I know where I can take my voice and what I can do with it. ‘Golden Ticket’ was a tough one. It seems cliché to sit there and sing just like an old man. I kept slipping into this Tom Waits thing. So I played it more like an aging Elvis impersonator.”

Claypool is aware that he is treading on sacred ground. He repeats, throughout the conversation, that people will either love or hate this record. He’s astute enough to know that any revision of a memorable work arrives with preconceived expectations and if those are not met—or poorly met— then it can be impossible to reconcile. It is something with which Claypool himself has grappled: In 2005, Tim Burton remade Willy Wonka as Charlie & The Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp as the candy factory owner, and Claypool hated the adaptation. Claypool has said this explicitly many times over the years, and he was even bold enough to mention his distaste for Burton’s version in the intro to Primus’ New Year’s Eve show. For the musician, there is danger in putting your own spin on something revered and tossing it into the world. But there is also the possibility to make something remarkably interesting.

“It’s like performing or being in a play,” Claypool says. “You’re interpreting someone else’s words and someone else’s work, and you can do it exactly the way it was originally done or you can reinterpret it and put your own signature on it. And I’ve done both on various occasions. And I think the latter is easier. It’s much easier to be me interpreting something than to try and be someone else.”

He pauses, then adds, “I mean, OK, we look at Tim Burton’s take at the Wonka thing. To me, he missed it, you know? I love me some Tim Burton and I love me some Johnny Depp, but he didn’t get it. It’s a very difficult film to watch. I can’t watch it. My kids don’t like it. I don’t really know any- body that likes it. There are gonna be people who are gonna listen to this and go, ‘Fuck you, Claypool, what the hell are you doing with this sacred cow here?’ Because you take that chance any time you dabble with a sacred cow.”

In the last year, Alexander has rekindled his passion for making music and playing the drums. He knows he needed his period of self-doubt and some time away from his instrument to be secure in that knowledge, but coming back to Primus represents a reinvigoration of the band’s overall mentality. The drummer’s excite- ment has transferred itself to LaLonde and Claypool, infusing everything they are now doing with augmented electricity. The timing of Alexander’s recent heart attack couldn’t have been worse—the drummer’s doctors, although optimistic about his recovery time, asked him to stay off the road until October. That means that Primus will play their September dates, which mostly consist of festivals, without Alexander.

Stepping in for those few shows is Danny Carey, the drummer for Tool, who Claypool previously played with on Adrian Belew’s 2005 album Side One. Claypool says the choice for a temporary drummer was between Carey and Stewart Copeland, but Carey was the logical pick. If all goes according to plan, then Alexander will be ready for Primus’ tour supporting Primus & The Chocolate Factory, which kicks off on October 22. The tour will be similar to the band’s New Year’s show, including the multi-colored candy-set stage pieces. Alexander’s contraption drum set will also make its way onstage. Claypool hopes to perform some matinee shows throughout the jaunt for younger audiences. “It’ll probably scare the shit outta them,” he laughs. “To be honest, we haven’t had any kids hear this yet. But I think we’ll tailor it so that it’s compelling and not frightening.”

Primus, an ever-shifting collection of musicians with Claypool at its helm, has settled into their latest incarnation. Alexander is committed to the group for the foreseeable future. (“We’re moving along,” is how he puts it.) Claypool, who admits that he often struggles to connect with time and place due to his own fragmented “mental hard drive,” refuses to predict Primus’ next step. He is interested in always moving forward, always changing, always expanding. He paraphrases Woody Allen in Annie Hall, another movie the musician likes. “Woody Allen says, ‘A relationship is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward or it’ll die, and I think what we have on our hands here is a dead shark,’” Claypool says. “And I don’t want to have a dead shark on my hands. I gotta keep moving forward and opening doors.”

Musicians frequently approach Claypool about collaborating. He recently spent time with Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz and the pair has discussed a possible project. (They like to throw around the term “gypsy twang.”) Primus’ tour runs into January and then, they will know how to take their next step. Claypool compares his creativity to a stove covered in pots. Most of the pots are on a back burner and every now and then, he pulls one forward. Anything beyond this album and this tour is on the back burner.

“There are a lot of pots,” Claypool says. “They’re simmering away.” How many pots? “It’s like an infinity,” the musician replies. “It’s like when you were a kid and you used to get your hair cut at the barber, and you’d look in the mirror in front of you and the mirror behind you, and you’d keep trying to see where it ends—that’s what my stove looks like.”