The Claypool Lennon Delirium: Easily Charmed by Fools
photos by Jay Blakesberg
This article originally appears as the cover story of the March 2019 issue of Relix. Subscribe before April 15 here with code CLD19 to get $5 off.
Musically promiscuous pals Les Claypool and Sean Lennon are back with their sophomore Delirium set, South of Reality—and, this time, it’s not just a side-project distraction.
Three decades into one of rock’s loopiest careers, Les Claypool finally had his “Lennon-McCartney moment.”
Coincidentally, it happened with a real-life Lennon. “We were talking about the notion of the parasitic man—how we are these parasites just fucking with the planet and how Mother Nature is gonna win when all is said and done,” he says of a conversation with Sean Lennon, his collaborator in The Claypool Lennon Delirium. “He was like, ‘Basically, we’re just fleas on the back of a dog.’ And it was like, ‘Boom!’ It’s like when The Beatles [wrote ‘Getting Better’]: Paul says, ‘It’s getting better all the time,’ and John says, ‘It can’t get no worse!’”
That bleakly comic back-and-forth wound up spawning “Like Fleas,” the climactic anthem from the duo’s freewheeling second LP, South of Reality. The track, with its beguiling hybrid of apocalyptic imagery and bouncy psych-pop melodies, summarizes their creative partnership. As Claypool meditates on the irreversible destruction of global warming, Lennon coos candy-coated hooks into your headphones—it’s like realizing you’re stuck on a sinking ship and rattling off Titanic jokes with your remaining breaths.
Claypool and Lennon have a lot of the same tastes—gallows humor, social satire, experimental rock, all of which flow throughout their two collaborative albums. They’re such obvious kindred spirits that it’s shocking they took so long to find each other—only really linking up when Lennon’s psych-pop project, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, opened for Claypool’s genre-fusing alt-rock act, Primus, on a 2015 tour. Dressing room chatter led to informal jams and back-of-the-bus hangouts, and they quickly discovered they’d tapped into a unique combination.
“Les is a great songwriter,” Lennon says, arguing that Claypool’s unique lyrical talents match his virtuoso bass lines. “A lot of his universe is based in rhythms and lyrics, and my songwriting is based more in chords and melody. It’s a good melding of worlds—those two skill sets complement each other.
“Les has often said to me that he’s musically promiscuous, and I am as well—meaning that we like to play with a lot of different people,” he continues. “But, for him, the most important thing is friendship and getting along with someone. He’s the kind of guy who can play with anyone he wants. He’s played with a lot of musicians who are technically way better than me but, in the end, it’s because we get along as people and share the same sense of humor and interests—that’s at the foundation of why we play together, not because I have great chops.”
Lennon, as he’s keen to note, never really thought of himself as much of a technical player before meeting Claypool. He viewed his work mostly as a vehicle for different sounds and songs, issuing two dreamy solo records (1998’s Into the Sun and 2006’s Friendly Fire), writing and touring with The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, serving as a multi-instrumentalist in indie-rock act Cibo Matto and collaborating with everyone from Wilco guitarist Nels Cline to his mother, Yoko Ono. But Claypool recognized that, with some encouragement and prodding, he could help Lennon tap into a more exploratory world.
“With those backstage jams, I had my little acoustic resonator bass and he had an acoustic guitar, and we were just fiddling around,” says the Primus frontman. “All the stuff he would come up with—these little counterparts to what I would offer—were really interesting. They weren’t predictable. He was playing these clever things I wouldn’t have thought of. For me, in music, film, fashion, anything—just existence on the planet—I’m intrigued anytime somebody comes up with something that makes me say, ‘Wow, how’d they come up with that?’ That’s what’s so spectacular about playing with [Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde]—he just pulls something out of his ass, and you go, ‘What the fuck what that? That’s amazing!’”
For Claypool, the turning point—the moment he realized they were bound to work together—was when Lennon sat in during Primus’ live showcase “Southbound Pachyderm,” a proggy staple off 1995’s Tales From the Punchbowl.
“That tends to be the sit-in song,” Claypool says. “We do this big dancing-close-to-the-edge outro, and he came out and was just playing some amazing, spectacular stuff. What I love about Sean is that he isn’t afraid to just jump in and start swimming in places where people are often a little trepidatious. I told him, ‘Dude, I’m going to get you on the cover of Guitar Player.’ I saw, early on, that he’s a motherfucker on the guitar. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that guy can play! [Laughs.] So…I think we got him on the cover!”
Despite Lennon’s free-spirited nature onstage, he admits that he was a bit nervous before working on their debut LP, 2016’s Monolith of Phobos. He was especially worried about carrying half the instrumental load opposite Claypool, a low-end deity who has managed to work his way into the pantheon of rock critics, metalheads and hippies alike.
“The truth is, at first, I hadn’t been in a situation where I was required to play with that kind of athleticism,” he says. “When you’re at a show, he might just point at you and tell you to improvise for 10 minutes by yourself. Just technically, I felt like I wanted to polish up my playing, so I did a lot of scales and guitar exercises to get prepared—almost like I was preparing for a gymnastics meet or something. For whatever reason, I was never the kind of player who worked on my technique so much. But he encouraged me to take a lead-guitar role. So, I felt pressured at first, but not in the negative sense—I just wanted to make sure I was ready. He demands a lot as a player—not because he’s a difficult person but because he’s used to being able to make musical decisions on the fly. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable. We both do—we have a groove and chemistry going, and we both work really fast.”
He isn’t kidding on that last point. The duo wrote and recorded the entire South of Reality LP, top to bottom, within a few weeks at Claypool’s Rancho Relaxo studio in Sonoma County, Calif.—only slowing their progress for the bassist to obsessively experiment with different mixes.
“It’s pretty funny,” Claypool admits, laughing at himself as he scrolls on his phone to look up the details of “Easily Charmed by Fools,” a scathing art-funk number that calls out gullible televangelist donors, dogged gun toters and mindless Tinder swipers. “I did 38 different mixes [of that song]. That’s just the way I am. For Sean, we’re working blazing fast. For me, we’ve always done it this way on Primus records. The Oysterhead album [2001’s The Grand Pecking Order] was done in a month. I tend to pick my records—a song here, a song there and they sort of accumulate. But if I have people coming to town, we get them done right away. I tend to work fast because, for me, it’s always about capturing a moment and a mood, as opposed to perfecting something. I don’t like beating something to death because it loses the spirit of it.”
Capturing “the spirit” has become a central part of Claypool’s creative ethos during the past 19 years. From the early to mid-‘90s, Primus were alternative music’s weird-ass sleeper darlings, uniting outcasts of all varieties with their demented hybrid of funk, prog and metal on albums like Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda. But as the decade drew to a close and a trendy crop of “nu-metal” bands started to bastardize their sound, the trio found themselves arguing with record labels and second-guessing their own merit.
“Primus was falling apart—we weren’t getting along, and we had a rough record that we made,” he says, referring to the notoriously fraught sessions for 1999’s Antipop. “The record company was questioning us. It was almost a mid-life crisis kind of thing. There were all these bands coming up on the heels of Primus, and they were surpassing us popularity-wise and whatnot. We’d never had pressure from the label and, all of a sudden, we heard, ‘Hey, these guys are doing this. Why aren’t you?’ It seemed like it was more trend-and fashion-based than it was about the music. It was very frustrating for me. Looking back on it, I felt like I was drowning.”
But he found an unlikely savior in Trey Anastasio. Claypool recruited the Phish guitarist, along with Police drummer Stewart Copeland, for a one-off live performance at New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre in May 2000—and the sense of freedom and community he felt during that highly improvised show forever changed his outlook on an industry that he’d started to feel disillusioned with.
“Every now and again, you stumble across a musician who nudges you out of your comfort zone and you realize, ‘Wait, I can do this,’” he says. “A big one for me was Trey when we did the Oysterhead thing—and the same goes for Stewart. Primus always used to stretch out, but nothing like going to New Orleans and making up music onstage. I was like, ‘What the hell? We’re gonna do this? We don’t need to plan a couple of things out?’ We actually wrote the songs the day before the show, and I was like, ‘OK!’ It really opened my eyes. We all did that in our garages when we were kids. But, I didn’t realize, until the first Oysterhead show, that there are people who will pay to see that. Stewart was even more worried. He’s used to playing pop songs the same way every night—the same setlist. But it was a whole different world, and it made me go, ‘Wow, my career isn’t over!’ It made me realize there’s a whole group of people who want to hear music and hear people express themselves honestly and not just put on a show. I remember Trey telling me, at one point, ‘We don’t have to put on a show. We don’t have to do this or that.’ Meaning: ‘Just play, Les.’ I remember finally letting go and just focusing on playing my instrument.”
Inspired by the positive vibes of that performance, Claypool formed his Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, an eclectic jam-prog act that hit the ground running at California’s Mountain Aire Festival soon after Oysterhead’s unveiling.
“I’m looking out at the audience, and it reminded me of the original Lollapalooza days—very diverse and very receptive to different kinds of music and different demographics and ages,” he says. “My son was about three at the time, and I remember him running around backstage spraying a hose. Everybody was hanging out and playing with him, and I was like, ‘Holy, shit, what is this?’ I’d come from the Ozzfest/Family Values thing, where it was all machismo and people trying to one-up each other.
“The jam scene kinda saved my life,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I’m being dramatic, but it saved my sanity, whatever that means.”
As Oysterhead’s 20th anniversary approaches, Claypool says he isn’t sure when the band will follow up their 2006 Bonnaroo reunion with another tour or album. “Stewart’s one of my best friends,” he says. “But he and I don’t talk about Oysterhead that much. I haven’t talked to Trey in a while—we’ll text each other now and again. We just kinda stopped talking about it. When we do it again, it’ll be one of those things where the planets align because our schedules are right. There’s also a lot of excitement within the Primus camp these days. We’ve all been enjoying playing with each other and creating, so that’s also a factor in not doing some of these other projects.”
Lennon’s path to the Delirium was equally informed by a sense of open-ended artistic freedom, stretching all the way back to his childhood. Both of his parents—including John, who was murdered in December 1980, when Sean was five—encouraged him to create and experiment in whatever medium he chose. And he quickly struck up a musical bond with his mother, the avant-garde visual artist and musical experimentalist who many Beatles fans falsely blamed for the band’s disintegration. When he was still a child, Lennon added a spoken word piece to Ono’s 1981 LP, Season of Glass—the first of many collaborations, including several vocal cameos throughout the ‘80s and a slot in her backing band, IMA, around 1995’s Rising. From 2009 to 2015, he took part in an all-star revival of her Plastic Ono Band, often trading wild guitar solos onstage opposite famous players like Cline.
Along the way, he carved out time for his own projects—even though he’s never felt entirely comfortable using the Lennon name. Early on, he squirmed under the massive shadow of his parents’ legacies, constantly bombarded with media attention that focused more on his lineage than his music.
“I have a really complicated relationship with being a solo artist,” he says. “I never really enjoy it as much as being in bands. Being a solo artist feels too self-referential sometimes—people tend to accentuate and highlight their preoccupation with me being the son of John and Yoko. When I’m in a band, it diffuses that obsession because it’s a group of people. It makes it more fun for me because I don’t have to live under this constant barrage of projections or preconceived notions. I am working on a solo record now, but I have mixed feelings about it. I enjoy it, but I also dread a certain media puzzle that, being the son of John and Yoko, I have yet to solve. It gets a little dull having to answer the same questions all the time.
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about my parents because I love my parents and The Beatles, but it’s all about the framing—what I should or shouldn’t be in relation to them,” he continues. “It’s dehumanizing in a way. Honestly, it often makes me feel like I’m invisible because I’m standing right in front of somebody, but they can’t see the person I am—I’m just a mirror reflecting all the ideas they have about my parents.”
Though he’s never exactly operated in the shadows, Lennon thrives out of the spotlight. Thanks to his varied tours, collaborations and production gigs, he’s become a sort of figurehead in New York’s underground music scene, linking up with just about everyone in the city. (Some of those friends are, let’s say, more “above ground”—like pop stars Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey, both of who recruited him for recent guest spots.) Cline, in particular, has become one of his closest pals—for a few years, they lived together with the Wilco guitarist’s wife, Yuka Honda (Lennon’s former Cibo Matto bandmate) and Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger member (and Lennon’s longtime girlfriend) Charlotte Kemp Muhl.
“When we were in the house, [Cline] and I used to jam together all the time,” Lennon says, describing a scene that sounds like an experimental musician summer camp. “I would wake up in the morning, and Nels would be transcribing some incredibly difficult jazz-guitar piece; Yuka would be working in the studio on samples; and Charlotte and I would be in the bedroom working on Ghost songs. It was a really fun time.”
At this point, you could base a “Six Degrees of Separation” game on Claypool or Lennon—these dudes have made enough contacts to form bands with just about anyone. Which brings us back to the Delirium: There’s a particular spark about this outfit that they both want to keep alive, and that’s fairly easily done since they’re already around each other most of the time.
“He’s one of the bros,” Claypool says of Lennon, explaining how he’s become part of his extended text-message threads with friends out in wine country. “It’s a very comfortable and fruitful friendship we have. Sean is like my brother. Now, he’s part of the family—he and my daughter pick on each other like they’re siblings. Life is too damn short to work with people who aren’t pleasant.”
“I feel like the Delirium started on a whim as a side-project and people thought—and we may have thought—it was something we were going to do for fun, like a one-off,” Lennon adds. “But the new record shows that we’re a real band—one that could turn into something even better in the future.”
Getting better all the time, indeed.
This article originally appears as the cover story of the March 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.