"We're lazy bastards. We never rehearse, never have," says Les Claypool, leader of alt-metal titans Primus. The laissez-faire attitude belies a 38-year legacy built on staggering feats of technical prowess and a devotion to a decidedly offbeat vision. "When we write an album, we'll get together and learn the songs. But for the most part, we play for a couple hours and then we go drink wine and eat steaks."
However, as any musician will tell you, Rush can do funny things to a band.
Primus had planned to spend 2021 realizing an idea they'd been mulling for years: paying tribute to Rush — a formative influence on all three members — by playing the 1977 arena-prog classic A Farewell to Kings in its entirety. Primus didn't even rehearse to play their South Stage–stealing Woodstock '94 mud hurricane. "But with the Rush thing, we had to practice," says Claypool. "We had to really buckle down and rehearse because you got to do it justice."
"I think at first we kind of felt like, Well, let's just do it and we'll make it our own," says drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander. "But as we started playing, I realized that I don't have a choice. I have to play it note-for-note as best I can."
For months, Alexander "brainwashed" himself by playing through the album almost every day. Claypool had to wrestle the 11-minute "Xanadu," which has him playing keyboards and bass, clicking through pedals and trying to sing in Geddy Lee's famously cloud-busting register. "'Madrigal,' [is] the least Rush-like song," says Claypool. "In fact, I asked Geddy — 'cause I have the big book of Rush set lists and all that whatnot. And it's not in any of those set lists from the day. And I asked him, 'Did you guys ever even play that song live?' And he's like, 'Nope.'"
As it turns out, the days spent shredding through Rush songs not only honored the Canadian band, but energized Primus, as well. In April, the band released "Conspiranoia," an 11-minute, 30-second space-metal opus of their own that sounds like a 1975 tour bus collision between Pink Floyd and Funkadelic. The lyrics had been gestating in Claypool's phone after post-COVID suspicions started gripping some of his friends.
"He had this idea for a superlong prog song, which sounded awesome. We just went in, started working on it, and banged it out," says guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde. "I literally got halfway home driving back down to L.A., and I got a call saying, 'Yeah, that worked out pretty good. Can you come back and let's do some more songs?'"
Primus had reunited their classic lineup — Claypool, LaLonde and Alexander — in 2013. The same whose mix of dissonant art-metal, rubbery grooves and Tim Burton–esque tales of suburban darkness wreaked unlikely multiplatinum havoc in the Nineties. The same that conquered college radio, tickled Beavis and Butt-Head and got Grammy voters to nominate a song called "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." In the last decade, they've been touring relentlessly, following their off-kilter muses: playing an entire Rush album every night, covering the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and writing a progtastic concept opera based on a hallucinogenic Italian children's book. The three songs on the Conspiranoid EP — all loosely based on symptoms of contemporary derangement — mark some of their sharpest material in decades.
"We just keep doing what we do, and try and keep it interesting for us," says Claypool. "Because if we're not interested, we're gonna be bored and we're gonna look bored and it's gonna translate as bored. You know, you have one time on the marble. If you're not having fun, then you need to change it up."
Primus was formed in 1984, but it might be more prudent to trace its origins back to mid-Sixties California. Claypool was raised in El Sobrante, a working-class NorCal suburb, where mingled about the cast of tweakers, fishermen, parking-lot loiterers, high-school chums and general eccentrics that would one-day populate Primus songs like a Federico Fellini film with a nasal twang. Famously, Claypool shared an algebra class with eventual Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, eyeing his guitar magazines and occasion-ally scoring some weed off the future guitar hero.
"I think a lot of people didn't even realize they went to school with the guitar player from Metallica, 'cause he was a very unassuming person," says Claypool. "He's like, [affects stoner lilt] 'Man, I know the three key elements to success, man. Sex, drugs and rock & roll.' He was like Tommy Chong."
Hammett gave Claypool a Jimi Hendrix cassette and invited him to sing for his band, thrash pioneers Exodus. Claypool was too shy to sing at the time, but did buy a bass guitar and absorbed Hammett's rhythmic advice, which became part of Claypool's signature stage presence. "He's like, 'Yeah. Claypool, man. I know the secret, man. You gotta tap your foot. You gotta tap your foot'," says Claypool doing his best Hammett. "And I always thought of that. And to this day I continue to do that. … I feel like I have a pretty good sense of rhythm and pocket and groove because I incorporate a portion of my body all the time when I'm playing. … Plus, I was second best dancer in my high school yearbook."
In the years after high school, Claypool would find himself filling in for progressive metal band Blind Illusion and laying down funky low end for a local R&B cover band. He formed the embryonic version of Primus — then called "Primate" — in 1984, after moving to Berkeley, California. Having no awareness of the thrash-metal revolution ripping through the Bay Area, and not fitting in with the thriving polyglot grooves of the local "worldbeat" scene, Primus was a darkly funky post-punk outlier haunting the local alternative clubs after the death of New Wave, inspired by Peter Gabriel, Public Image Ltd and maverick guitarist Fred Frith. "The edgy stuff," Claypool says of the metal crunch that turned Primus into the weirdest kids at the Headbangers Ball, "didn't really come along until basically after I auditioned for Metallica."
In 1986, Claypool heard that Hammett's new band was doing pretty well for themselves but had just lost bass player Cliff Burton in a bus accident. Hammett gave Claypool a tape of Ride the Lightning, which he would dutifully listen to in the shower as a wake-up before his day job as a carpenter. How soon into that audition did Claypool realize he was not going to be in Metallica?
"Oh, I knew right away," Claypool says with a light cackle. "It's like going on a date, the girl's not into you, you just kind of get that vibe. They were friendly as hell. But I did not fit. I didn't even slightly fit. I showed up, I had this skater, Mohawk thing. I had two different colored tennis shoes on. I was wearing a hat just like this actually," he says, tugging on his newsboy cap.
By 1989, Primus had built up a sizable following through hard gigging, some local radio play, the in-demand Sausage demo and momentum provided by similarly funk-inspired heavy bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone. Primus guitarist Todd Huth had a son and drummer Jay Lane had a major label contract, so Claypool rebooted the band into the iconic version that ended up as the alternative nation's quirky sore thumb.
Five years Claypool's younger, guitarist Ler LaLonde had already earned a place in extreme-music history: His high school band was Possessed, the Bay Area blasphemists whose hunger for speed, shock, growls and grind produced 1985's Seven Churches, widely regarded as the first death-metal album.
"Yeah, I think, in general, the idea was a new thing that hasn't been done and cram it down people's throats," LaLonde says of Possessed. "The people around me, a lot of the bands that were trying to get big were sort of going down the glam route. In the metal scene in the Bay Area, everyone was just like, 'No, we're going to do this thing. We're going to force people to be into it. We're going to make the craziest shit we can.' It helps when you're 15.
"The satanic thing pissed people off," LaLonde continues. "I didn't know shit about Satan. Even Jeff [Becerra, Possessed vocalist-bassist] who was writing the lyrics, he's like, 'I don't know, I'm writing the craziest shit and it makes people mad.' Even at school, the jocks that want to beat you up, and you show up with an upside-down cross on, all of a sudden now they sidestep around you in the hallway."
LaLonde drifted away from extreme metal once it started taking itself too seriously and sounding like "a garbage truck going down the street." Friends hipped him to Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead. Like Claypool, he filled in for Blind Illusion and his bandmates got him into King Crimson. Claypool got him into legendary San Francisco eyeball-oddballs the Residents and the cantankerous clatter of Tom Waits. By 1989, he was a natural fit for Primus.
The pair auditioned drummers, though eventual choice Tim Alexander would not have skated by on first impressions.
"We thought he was a weirdo. He showed up with pirate pants on and fingerless gloves and a bandana around his head and a trench coat. We were like, Who the hell is this guy?" Claypool recalls with a laugh. "He had this little fanny pack on. And I remember my stomach was bothering me one day and he's like, 'Here, try some of these.' And he dips into his pouch and pulls out these things and pours these little — they fuckin' look like rabbit turds — into my hand. I swallowed 'em down. It made my stomach feel better, but I was burping up this horrible nasty shit all day long. And Ler started calling him 'Herb,' because he had all these herbs in his pouch.
"Me and Ler had our thing. And then Herb was this weird pirate guy with MC Hammer pants on," continues Claypool, "but he could fucking play. And to be honest with you, I don't know if I've ever appreciated it as much as I have these past handful of years. I've got to play with people that are superheroes. I'm in a band with Stewart Copeland [of the Police]. I'm gonna play with him next week. And Herb is of that caliber."
The new trio found their common ground jamming out pieces of Rush songs. Claypool and LaLonde's first concerts were Rush shows. Alexander had his life changed when he heard Neil Peart's tumbling drum intro to 1980's "The Spirit of Radio." The fledgling band's first recording together, 1989's self-funded, self-released live album Suck on This, begins with Primus tearing through a few bars of the Canadian band's morse-tappy "YYZ."
With the wild success of their debut album, 1990's Frizzle Fry, Primus became the second band to sign to Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field's new major label Interscope (the first: Gerardo of "Rico Suave" fame). Their doggedly unique presentation — squid-fingered fretless bass slap-and-pop, discordant sheets of distortion, proggy drum fireworks, homespun tales of suburgatory, and an ability to work a mosh pit into a froth — made Primus an early signal of alternative rock's incoming takeover. Their platinum 1991 album was called Sailing the Seas of Cheese — an arch term they used to describe any corny thing a band does in hopes of gaining wider acceptance — and Primus mostly found success without deviating too far from their idiosyncrasies. However, they did, somehow, end up on Daytona Beach playing MTV's Spring Break the same year as Mr. Big, Right Said Fred and Marky Mark.
"My manager said, 'Look, you guys keep passing on all this stuff. The label's going to stop supporting you.' We never did in-stores, hated doing in-stores, never went to in-stores and signed shit," says Claypool. "On the way down there, I just got pissed. So me and Larry ate acid. And so when you were watching us on that thing, everything I saw was just orange. It was just bright orange. And I remember talking to Pauly Shore, and he's all, 'Hey, buddy.' And I was like, 'What the hell is going on here?'"
"I wasn't [on acid]. Thank God," laughs LaLonde. "We done that on the beach there in the sun, and then had to fly back to Poughkeepsie [New York, in a blizzard] … three aborted landings with the plane flying sideways. [If] I was on acid … probably my brain would have exploded, it was so terrifying."
When the alternative-rock explosion happened in earnest, Primus was on the front lines, landing on the Top 10 of the Billboard album charts with 1993's Pork Soda, headlining the third Lollapalooza and becoming the bane of network censors with 1995 smash "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." MTV loved the expensive human-cartoon video, but one person at standards gummed up the works, relegating it to late-night airplay.
"I remember talking to this lady on the phone and it was a very disturbing conversation," says Claypool. "I said, 'Look, we've downplayed the whole beaver thing. And obviously there's a little bit of a double entendre, but when all is said and done, it's about a pet beaver and you can see it in the video.' And she literally said to me, 'I would be as equally uncomfortable watching this video with my parents as I would watching the scene from Silence of the Lambs where he says, "I can smell your cunt from here."' What do you say to that?"
Alexander left Primus in 1996 and the band soldiered on with industrial-strength drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia, later of auteur-Axl-era Guns N' Roses. By 1999, Primus played weird uncle to a generation of nu-metal bands including Korn, Limp Bizkit and Deftones. "A lot of these bands ended up touring with us," says Claypool. "I always joke that we were the leapfrog band because you open for Primus and you become huge. I remember Interscope really wanting us to do Family Values and Ozzfest. And I was just not super comfortable in those worlds. I mean, we did them, and we made a lot of great friends from them, but it just didn't feel like we fit."
By 2000, Claypool had no desire to play Primus songs. "And then I wasn't going to play it unless Herb came back," he says. "And that was a big thing with Ozzfest. I remember sitting there one night and watching Sabbath with Bill Ward on drums. And I've seen those guys play with all these different drummers over the years that were amazing, but there's something about Bill Ward's feel that you just couldn't deny it. And I'm watching this and I just went, 'Holy shit, this is unbelievable. We need to get Herb back at some point in time.'"
In 2003, Alexander re-enlisted for about 90 shows, but old tensions revealed themselves anew.
"It's tough to describe. It's just having emotions of, What am I doing? Thinking maybe I want more, or maybe I want to do something else," says Alexander. "I went through a period where I didn't want to play drums. Just thinking there's more out there. Primus had gotten to a certain level. And I think sometimes I would see other bands that we had played with, and seeing them grow and grow. And I was feeling like we were maybe going the other way. I think I was striving for bigger and better, you know? Which I still do. But now I appreciate what we have now. It took a long time to grow up."
Alexander's restlessness led him to a prog-metal solo opus as Fata Morgana and work with Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer. "I had a lot of time away from playing and then I just got depressed," the drummer reflects, "and I was living up in Northern Washington, and trying to figure out life."
After Primus wound down a three-year stint with Jay Lane, Alexander rejoined the fold for a third time. "I just was like, Oh yeah, my body still remembers all this stuff," he says. "It just felt like home."
However, shortly after rejoining, "Herb the Ginseng Drummer," renown for his healthy living, got the shock of a lifetime, suffering the first of two heart attacks in 2014.
"I was actually playing some golf and I was getting pains in my chest. And I thought I was pulling a muscle or something or hitting a nerve in my back," says Alexander. "I had a triple bypass … My doctor, he was a drummer in college. What they do is they take an artery out of your leg that flows down the leg from your groin to your knee. … And then they cut it into pieces and they make little bridges out of that. … And my doctor was like, 'No, no, that's his kick drum leg. Do the left leg.'"
"I had August and September to heal, and then we had a tour," Alexander continues. "So he double-wired my chest and he said, 'So that when you're playing and you turn, you don't rip your chest open.' And I was like, 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?'"
Primus was in good hands during Alexander's recovery: TOOL's Danny Carey was kind enough to fill in for a few months. (Says Claypool, "He's got a little bit more of a minimalist feel than Herb does. … But when he throws in one of his flurries, it's fucking Danny Carey just slapping you across the face with it.")
However, Primus was, is and will likely always be at their best when it's Les, Ler and Herb, the same three guys that jammed Rush songs in 1989.
"Even on the tour right now, I can't see this band being any better or anybody else being better in this band," says LaLonde. "To be honest, when this band started, the goal for me was to be as big as the Dead Kennedys. I don't even know if we reached that. So, the fact that we're still going and people like the music … I think there's no way you can look at that and not be so happy about that."
Claypool says he expects another Primus full-length at some point, but it's "not on the horizon now." The band is still making their way around North America playing the second round of the Rush tour; his filmmaker son Cage Claypool is poring through footage for a documentary; and there's enough Claypool projects to keep anyone busy: his psych-pop band with Sean Lennon, his jammy Bastard Jazz with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, some recording with bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings. Does he at least know if Classic Primus ver 3.0 is going to stick this time?
"I mean, you never really do know that," says Claypool. "People would ask back in the old days, 'How long's Primus going to go?' And I would say, 'Well, it's going to go until it's not fun anymore.'"