Les Claypool Talks Regrouping the Frog Brigade, Announces Summer of Green Tour
Les Claypool regroups his Frog Brigade for a spring tour that will include a complete performance of Pink Floyd’s Animals.
“The Frog Brigade was a wonderful conduit into this very cool world that I had always straddled,” Les Claypool says as he prepares to regroup one of his most beloved solo projects for the first time in almost two decades of the Summer of Green tour. “It has always been very important to me–as far as just evolving and representing a new chapter in my life, not just career.”
The singer-bassist originally formed what became Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade in 2000 for a one-off appearance at California’s Mountain Aire Festival. At the time, Claypool had recently started receiving offers to play a mix of jam-associated events after performing as Oysterhead with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and The Police’s Stewart Copeland as part of a New Orleans’ SuperJam. Claypool was also in the midst of a creative crossroads himself; Primus, his longtime alt-funk trio, had recently started a hiatus and he was estranged from his closest musical collaborator, guitarist Larry LaLonde.
The Frog Brigade remained his primary musical outlet until Primus regrouped in 2003, releasing a pair of “Live Frogs” albums and a critically acclaimed studio record, Purple Onion. The ensemble also became a force on the festival circuit, jamming with Bob Weir at Gathering of the Vibes shortly after forming and appearing at the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002. Their complete recreation of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic masterpiece Animals was also a popular part of the show and was even released on Live Frogs 2.
Two decades after his last full Frog Brigade run and almost twenty years since he’s used the name in any capacity, Claypool will hit the road this spring with his improvisationally focused combo–revisiting Animals and a career-spanning mix of covers and originals. Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison and King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, who was also a touring member of the Heads, will open select dates with their Remain In Light tour while Fishbone, Neal Francis, Budos Band, W.I.T.C.H and Moon Duo will provide support duties at other stops.
While Frog Brigade’s lineup morphed a bit in the early 2000s–its nascent configurations included some former members of Primus as well as two key Weir collaborators–the group’s upcoming run will mix mainstays like saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon with guitarist Sean Lennon and drummer Paulo Baldi from his current Delirium band. Roger Waters’ son Harry, who is known for his work with Dean Ween and Ozric Tentacles, will play keys.
As Claypool says, “There are a lot of popsicle sticks on the table to build some things with.”
Let’s start with the upcoming run. It has been quite a while since you’ve toured with the Frog Brigade and the band cycled through a few different configurations early on. What inspired you to bring back this project and who else will be part of this year’s lineup?
Well, there have been a lot of queries about when we’re gonna do the Animals thing again—a bunch of people missed out on that in the old days. We’re in between Primus stuff and Delirium stuff so it just seemed like a good time to do it.
I’ve got a pretty substantial crew together this time, and we’re gonna go out and rock the dust off of this thing. It’s a combination of all the various Frog Brigade and Fancy Band characters and then I’ve got Sean Lennon on guitar. So we’ve got Skerik and Mike Dillon—two staples in my world—as well as [former Cake member and current Delirium collaborator] Paulo Baldi on drums. Neither Jay Lane nor Jeff Chimenti were available because they’re in the Dead world and that’s a busy world these days. So I’ve got Harry Waters on keys, which I’m pretty excited about. He’s been playing The Wall in Europe, and he’s gonna come back and play Animals with us. He was out with Dean Ween Group for a while and he has his jazz project. He’s a great guy, too. I’m stoked—we’ve talked about playing together over the years and have never really done it until now.
You and Sean have worked closely together during the past few years and even covered some Pink Floyd tracks with Delerium. How has it been working on Animals with him?
Shiner [Sean Lennon] doesn’t really think of himself as a strong guitar player. And I’m like, “Dude, you have no idea.” The guy can really play, and I’m always that guy who nudges him. We were out here working on some stuff and I just thought that he’d be perfect for this. He jumped at the chance, and he was very excited to do it. I figured, “He must be intimidated about the Animals stuff,” and he was like, “I got that—it’s your stuff that I’m worried about.” I was laughing about that because I played a lot of the guitar parts on my records, and I’m not a guitar player. I just make these odd sounds, but he’s fired up about the whole thing.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the Frog Brigade, which was your first project after Oysterhead while Primus was on hiatus. What were you looking for when you first started putting together the original band?
We stumbled into it at the beginning. Basically, the Frog Brigade came about because, after I did the Oysterhead thing, all of the sudden I was getting these calls from the jam world to put something together for this festival or that festival. My good friend Michael Bailey—who books The Fillmore—used to have the Mountain Aire Festival and asked us to put something together for that [in 2000]. I wanted to do something with two drummers so I got one of my favorite drummers in the world, Tim Alexander together with Jack Irons and Mirv [Marc Haggard], who is one of my favorite guitarists in the world. [Alexander had recently left Primus and would rejoin the trio when they regrouped in 2003; Irons had spent time with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam.] And then my manager was like, “You know, you’re gonna have to get someone from the jam world—this is coming off a little heavy.” So we brought Skerik in.
I was gonna call it the Thunder Brigade because we had two drummers and then it came back to us that we might not want to call it the Thunder Brigade, once again because I was the Primus guy coming into the jam world. The Mountain Aire Festival is in Calaveras County and, because of the famous jumping frog of Calaveras County–as per Mark Twain–we began calling it the Frog Brigade. And then it became Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade as it evolved.
Basically, the band started as my therapy band, to an extent, because Primus had just broken up. We called it a hiatus but, at the time, we were broken up—me and one of my best friends in the entire world, Larry LaLonde, weren’t talking and so I said, “I’m gonna gather some of my favorite musicians together and hit the road.” I bought this little airstream and packed these guys into this motorhome and started driving up and down the coast playing bars. That was the original Frog Brigade—Skerik, Jeff Chimenti, Jay Lane, [original Primus guitarist] Todd Huth from Sausage and then Eenor, who I found from Craigslist. We just had a blast.
Frog Brigade’s top-to-bottom cover of Animals was a big part of your show and you even released it in 2001 as part of the “Live Frogs” series. Why did you decide to perform that LP in particular?
The one thing I did not want to do was play any Primus songs so we needed material. I’ve always wanted to play “Pigs” because it’s one of my all time favorite Pink Floyd songs and I said, “If I ever have a keyboard player in my band, I want to play ‘Pigs.’” So we started playing “Pigs” as part of our repertoire. And then we said, “Why don’t we learn the whole record. That way we can play two sets. We can do some of my solo stuff and then do a few tunes like [King Crimson’s] ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and then do Animals in its entirety.” We just started doing that in these clubs up and down the coast and it caught on so we decided to record a couple of shows and we released them. And one of them even won a Jammy.
It was such a new world for me. Doing the Oysterhead thing was really amazing for me and really opened my eyes to this whole world. Primus was also this eclectic thing and we tended to open up so the jam thing was pretty natural for me, but I was like, “Holy shit, these people are coming to hear musicians take it to the edge as opposed to seeing somebody who’s got their baseball cap on sideways.” It wasn’t image oriented—it was music oriented. It was a revelation that these people would watch us as if we were jamming in the garage, and it really changed my life and brought me back to my instrument, which was a wonderful thing for me.
With Primus, I remember Buzz from the Melvins giving me shit like, “You keep mixing it up at these shows with all this stuff,” and I was like, “We like to keep it interesting.”
Eventually you brought Frog Brigade into the studio to record 2002’s Purple Onion, which featured Warren Haynes and members of Fishbone and also introduced some of the bedrocks of your solo repertoire. Can you talk a little bit about writing material for that album?
Well, in 1996 I did the Holy Mackerel record, Highball with the Devil. I always said that those were the songs I wouldn’t inflict upon the guys of Primus—I just knew that it wasn’t gonna thrill them to play those songs. Some of them were written on guitar, and some of them were written on drums. With Frog Brigade, I was free to do that again—to go in there and be a mad scientist. Eenor, Mike Dillon and Skerik were there for a lot of it; making the Purple Onion record was an incredible experience. Tom Waits listed it as one of his top 20 albums of all time and, fucking hell, that’s unbelievable. I can’t even believe that just came out of my mouth.
It was a great time for creativity and experimentation and, halfway through recording Purple Onion, I bought this old vintage API console, which I still have to this day. There was a lot of pasta being thrown at the walls at that time, and it was a good period of growth for me. I became way more confident and, with the Animals set in particular, I became way more confident in my vocals. I never really considered myself to be a singer—I always felt like I was the narrator of the band but I actually had to sing some of this material and work on my singing. That led to the Delirium world, which also gave me much more confidence in that aspect of my musicality.
It has been a number of years since you toured under the Frog Brigade moniker. Was there a specific moment when you felt like the band transitioned into another project?
Some of it wasn’t so much my choice. The fans started calling [my next solo project] the Fancy Band because of something I posted on the web when we announced a tour. To me, the Frog Brigade represented a certain era of what I was doing and then there was a period when I no longer had a guitar in the band. The Frog Brigade had lots of guitar and keyboard so when it became me and the cello and Mike Dillon’s melodic sense and whatnot, it was just so different that we stopped using the name. It slowly got whittled down—it was no longer Mothers of Invention, it just became Zappa.
As you mentioned, Frog Brigade traditionally mixed in covers by King Crimson and The Rolling Stones on the road. What will your upcoming setlists look like?
There is a pretty rich catalog of covers and original material there so there will definitely be stuff from my entire career. It won’t just be the Frog Brigade era but the big element of the Frog Brigade is gonna be playing Animals. But this time we’re doing it with just one guitar and with five marimba and saxophones so this will be a new interpretation, obviously—a different interpretation with Sean in there. There might be a Delirium song. There are a lot of popsicle sticks on the table to build some things with.
Animals is not that long of a piece. So if we’re doing a 90 minute set, it’s only half the set. It’s funny because Primus just did Rush’s Farewell to Kings front to back. In the beginning, I was like, “How are we gonna pull this off?” The notion of it was great—we jam on bits and pieces of it. But, all of a sudden, I’m having to sing this shit and play these keyboard parts and remember where to jump up here and do the double neck. But Merv just looked at me and was like, “It’s only 37 minutes worth of material.” And I was like, “Your right!” It was like running a sprint because it is extremely fun to play but it’s rough. Those guys can fucking play and they took it to the tenth degree with every one of those songs back then. That shit was hard.
That’s interesting. Even though you are playing these classic LPs, that only represents a fraction of your total set length.
In the old days, Rush would put out an album once a year, and it would have seven or eight songs on it. That was the glorious thing about albums. CDs started fucking things up—all of a sudden, people were putting 20 songs on a release that probably shouldn’t have had 20 songs on it or should’ve actually been a couple of releases spread out over a period of a couple years.
I’m a big fan of that and that’s why we did this three-song Primus release, Conspiranoid. People wanna hear a couple of new songs when they see Primus but they don’t wanna hear 10 new songs. They wanna hear the old stuff and maybe we can sprinkle in a few new ones. But what happens when you do that is that the other 17 new songs get neglected and fade away. That was why we did this short release—so we could really showcase the new songs and not take away from the old songs. That was how it used to be back in the old days and, in the real old days, it was only singles.
It’s gonna be fun but we need to see what the hell is gonna happen but when all is said and done. Mike, Skerik and I have a long history together, and Shiner and I have some fairly long history. Harry is kinda the new guy and I am stoked about having him in the mix. If the chains start going off the tracks, then there’s plenty of people to keep this thing moving.
Here’s a look at Claypool’s Summer of Green Tour 2023
Wednesday, May 17th – Stateline, NV – TBA venue ^
Friday, May 19th – Napa, CA – Blue Note Summer Sessions at TBA venue ^
Saturday, May, 20th – Santa Cruz, CA – Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium ^
Sunday, May 21st – San Diego, CA – Observatory North ^
Tuesday, May 23rd – Salt Lake City, UT – TBA venue ^
Wednesday, May 24th – Denver, CO – Mission Ballroom ^
Friday, May 26th – Kansas City, MO – Grinders KC
Saturday, May 27th – Chillicothe, IL – Summer Camp Music Festival
Sunday, May 28th – Louisville, KY – Iroquois Amphitheater ~
Tuesday, May 30th – Buffalo, NY – Town Ballroom ~
Wednesday, May 31st – Columbus, OH – KEMBA Live! ~
Friday, June 2nd – Detroit, MI – Royal Oak Music Theatre ~
Saturday, June 3rd – Oak Hill, WV – Mountain Music Festival
Sunday, June 4th – Chattanooga, TN – TBA venue
Tuesday, June 6th – Richmond, VA – Brown’s Island *
Wednesday, June 7th – Raleigh, NC – Raleigh Memorial Auditorium *
Friday, June 9th – Asheville, NC – Rabbit Rabbit *
Saturday, June 10th – Atlanta, GA – The Eastern *
Sunday, June 11th – Columbia, SC – Township Auditorium *
Tuesday, June 13th – Dallas, TX – Music Hall at Fair Park *
Wednesday, June 14th – Austin, TX – The Moody Amphitheater *
Friday, June 16th – Houston, TX – White Oak Music Hall Lawn *
Saturday, June 17th – New Orleans, LA – Mardi Gras World *
Monday, June 19th – Mobile, AL – Saenger Theatre *
Tuesday, June 20th – Tampa, FL – Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino *
Thursday, June 22nd – Baltimore, MD – The Lyric %
Friday, June 23rd – Port Chester, NY – Capitol Theatre ~
Saturday, June 24th – Westbury, NY – NYCB Theatre [In The Round] ~
Monday, June 26th – Northampton, MA – The Pines Theater ~
Wednesday, June 28th – Portland, ME – State Theatre #
Thursday, June 29th – Boston, MA – MGM Music Hall at Fenway #
Saturday, July 1st – Scranton, PA – Peach Music Festival
Sunday, July 2nd – Chicago, IL – Salt Shed [Indoor] #
Monday, July 3rd – St. Paul, MN – Palace Theatre #
Friday, July 7th – Bonner, MT – Kettlehouse Amphitheater +
Saturday, July 8th – Redmond, WA – Marymoor Park Live +
Sunday, July 9th – Forest Grove, OR – Grand Lodge +
Tuesday, July 11th – Wheatland, CA – Hard Rock Live +
Thursday, July 13th – San Luis Obispo, CA – Madonna Inn +
Friday, July 14th – Los Angeles, CA – The Wiltern +
Saturday, July 15th – Phoenix, AZ – Van Buren +
* Jerry Harrison & Adrian Belew Remain In Light
~ Neal Francis
# Budos Band
+ Moon Duo