Busy fingers

Arguably the most innovative bassist since Jaco Pastorius, Les Claypool has helped to redefine the role of his instrument perhaps more than any other rock musician of his generation. Best known as the leader of the quirky alt-prog trio Primus, Claypool has been widely heralded for his unique slapping style. Generally speaking, he pushes the bass to the forefront of the music and has also expanded the instrument’s accepted role in mainstream rock by playing a surprising amount of melody on what is widely viewed as a rhythm-section instrument.

These days, his name is anything but mud: Primus frontman Les Claypool has gone from experimental bassist to author, film director, TV-show theme music composer (most notably South Park) and vintner in recent years.

Claypool’s touch is often instantly recognizable in his other work, and he has certainly kept busy with a revolving door of projects since Primus went on its first period of indefinite hiatus in 2000. (The band has since reunited a number times.) His other bands include the Frog Brigade and Oysterhead, the supergroup-type collaboration with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland of The Police.

For his upcoming Asheville appearance, Claypool presents yet another band configuration, a quartet that features saxophonist Skerik and dueling drummers Paulo Baldi and Mike Dillon, with Dillon doubling up on vibraphone and marimba.

“It’s sort of a blend of new and old, players that I’ve played with quite a bit,” Claypool explains. “The drum kits are all kinds of f**ked up, and there’s no other melodic instrument, which makes me have to take up a lot more slack.”

Claypool says that fans attending his performances can expect him to dig deep into his back catalog.

“We’re working up a bunch of old material right now that people are going to be very surprised I’m pulling out,” he says, including “some stuff that’s never been able to be performed before.”

Like what?

“I don’t want to tip my hat too much,” he answers with a laugh, before pausing. “Old material … from bands that I’ve been in in the past. Let’s say that.”

But, while music has always been an important part of his life, Claypool has branched out beyond the bass in recent years. In 2006, he directed his first feature film, National Lampoon Presents Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, and released his first novel, South Of The Pumphouse. And if that weren’t enough, he’s also been dabbling in vinification.

“From the outside, it appears that I do a lot more than I do,” he says. “But as I say that, I’m currently very stressed out because I’m finishing up a film score, I have rehearsals all week, and I’m in the process of making a significant batch of wine.”

Add to that list tentative plans for both Primus and Oysterhead to enter the studio next year, and one begins to wonder how Claypool successfully juggles all these pursuits, which also include recording his own material in his home studio and operating and maintaining the gear himself.

“I really have no clue how I manage the time,” he says with a laugh. “I come from a long line of auto mechanics and a very strong blue-collar work ethic, and I get depressed if I’m sitting still for too long. Maybe that’s it.”

For listeners who don’t instantly “get” Claypool’s peculiar technique, his playing can be grating, disorienting and overly domineering. And, while he certainly brought a fresh perspective to the bass, when the music revolves around his parts (which it usually does), it can sometimes sound as if he’s still tapping the same creative vein that first earned him recognition with Primus in the early ‘90s.

But Claypool has curiously managed to re-invent himself of late by venturing into the jam-band scene, a thoroughly unexpected (and impressive) move that resulted in an expansion of his horizons. It even added a new dimension to the buzz around the reunited Primus, with its newfound enthusiasm for improvisation, which saw the band become quickly embraced by many in the jam-band scene.

“Primus was always the band that nobody knew where the hell we fit in,” Claypool muses, recalling tours with acts ranging from Anthrax and Public Enemy to U2. “We always did a little stretching out, but never to the extent that we later got into. The first introduction to this stuff was when we did the H.O.R.D.E. festival with Blues Traveler, Morphine, and Neil Young. A little bit prior to that, I had my band Sausage and we opened up for Phish. But I wasn’t actually brought into the scene until Oysterhead.”

Aside from the musical advantages he’s gained from embracing the jam aesthetic, Claypool’s jam-scene association inspired his first film, the aforementioned Electric Apricot, which spoofs a good-natured jam band’s Olympian, obstacle-fraught quest to play a fictitious festival named Festeroo, an obvious knock-off of Bonnaroo. In the film, Claypool plays a hippie drummer named “Lapdog” and—yes—he plays drums for real.

Unsurprisingly, Claypool took a hands-on approach to making the film.

“We made a feature-length film, edited it, and the whole bit for 150 grand,” he explains before observing: “We’re going to hear more and more and more of this. These people that are making these little films and putting them on YouTube are going to be the Wes Andersons of tomorrow.”

But are the film’s fans likely to see a live version of the fictitious band joining the already substantial list of Claypool-related projects?

“It’s a band, for all intents and purposes,” Claypool answers before adding with a laugh: “I’m sure it will rear its glorious head.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]

who: Les Claypool with Secret Chiefs 3
what: Prog-rock, with a hint of jam
where: Orange Peel
when: Saturday, March 1. 9 p.m. ($28. 225-5851 or www.theorangepeel.net)


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