Story by John Swenson
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
"The more you can do it yourself, the better you are in the long run," Les Claypool told the DIY gathering at the CMJ convention in New York last October. "That’s my philosophy."
Former Primus bassist Claypool is everywhere these days. He’s all over the Live from Bonaroo DVD, jams with Warren Haynes on Gov’t Mule’s The Deep End, Vol. 2, and earlier in the year his new band, Frog Brigade, released Purple Onion on his own label, Prawn Song.
Purple Onion is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s the closest Claypool has come to distilling his unique brand of twisted wit, dry satire, and challenging music into one overarching statement. "I’m really excited about this," he says. "It’s my first solo recording, and there’s been an incredible response to it."
Packed with great songs and guest appearances, including Haynes who returns the favor, Purple Onion features fellow bassists Norwood Fisher (Fishbone) and Lonnie Marshall (Weapon of Choice) as well. One track, "Barrington Hall," is a wild tribute to the Berkeley dormitory Primus fans know from their 1989 debut, Frizzle Fry.
"When you drove the van up to play Barrington, painted right in the middle of the street were the initials LSD," recalls Claypool. "It felt like it was a living entity. There was a spirit of Barrington, like the spirit of peyote that follows it around. That’s the way Barrington was. It was definitely the feeling of a spirit there, an entity, like a prankster. Sometimes it was an evil prankster, sometimes it was a good thing. For me, it was always a good thing, but I saw the dark side of it as well."
Few artists would abandon a band as successful as Primus just to change musical direction, but Claypool is a restless soul. "My father was always a guy who had a lot of projects going on around the house," Claypool explains. "He was rebuilding the bathroom while he was painting a car in the garage while he was building a deck in the backyard while he had a fence going while a rental property needed a new toilet. He was always in various phases of completion on many different projects. I think I got that bug from him. I can’t sit still. The thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is the feeling that I’ve accomplished something. Usually that’s pointing in a musical direction, but it could be like yesterday, fixing the bilge pump on my boat. It makes me feel good to get something done."
Collaborating with musicians has become Claypool’s main passion. "Probably the most exciting thing for me as a musician and the high point of my career is to have all these incredible collaborations with all these great musicians," he says. "I got to play with a lot of my heroes, like Tom Waits, the Rush guys, Ozzy Osbourne. I’m in a band with Bernie Worrell right now. Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio [his mates in Oysterhead]—the list goes on and on and on. That’s just unbelievably incredible and a lot of times it continues to lead to other projects. This weekend I’ve got a show with Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. That’s me, Buckethead, Bernie Worrell, and [Primus drummer] Brain. We just do total improvisation. There’s no set, no rehearsals, we don’t even know what key we’re going to be playing in. We’ve done one show and it was incredible, and now we’re doing a couple more and talking about maybe making a record."
That spirit of live adventure lies at the core of Claypool’s worldview. "Look at Bonaroo—it sold 70,000 tickets in advance," he explains. "Phish got 90,000 requests for their New Year’s show. People want to see musicians play their instruments, because they haven’t seen that in a while. Over the past few years it’s been like we’re all Pro Toolin’ it, we’re all looping and fixing all the blemishes. People want to hear the blemishes, they want to hear the human element in music again."