Back when MTV paid a bit more attention to the “M” part of its call sign, videos for raucous yet strangely intoxicating ditties like “Tommy the Cat” and “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver” introduced legions of young, impressionable minds to the furious fretwork of Larry Lalonde, the intricate yet thundering drum machine that was/is Tim “Herb” Alexander, and of course the tablature-unfriendly bass licks of the one and only Les Claypool.
Now, nearly 15 years later — the last several of them spent in hibernation — Primus’ original lineup of has regrouped, refueled and come crawling out of the wilderness like some almost-forgotten woolly mammoth, primed to wreak havoc on any innocents in its path.
Their aptly titled Tour de Fromage (that’s French for “cheese,” dude) once again brings us the extraterrestrial sound of one of the best trios since The Stooges.
And aliens have never sounded so good. This second leg of a long-overdue reunion tour comes equipped with two full sets of Primus madness. The first is a constantly changing, nightly selection of ditties from throughout the Primus catalog (including tunes from their 2003 EP/DVD, Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, released on Claypool’s own Prawn Song Records).
The second set is a complete performance of the band’s 1991 studio masterpiece, Sailing the Seas of Cheese (Interscope).
Seas of Cheese effectively propelled into the national spotlight a quirky-yet-ravenous, bass-fueled groove of a group that, thankfully, has never yet taken itself too seriously. The band’s own mantra, “Primus Sucks,” emphasizes its comic theatrics, and with its pig masks and union suits, Primus’ live act is almost reminiscent of the late Frank Zappa’s circus shows.
Lalonde, whose masterly licks and solo work are often overshadowed by Claypool’s, helps drive an edgy-but-sweet sound that’s rounded out by Alexander’s multilayered tub work. Claypool’s vocals flow like the call of some strange cuckoo bird, covering swaths of ground like the speed fetishes of a tireless working class (“Those Damned Blue-Collared Tweakers”), the exploits of mighty anglers (“John the Fisherman”), or the pet choices of some very odd women (“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”).
After a few years away from Primus, as respective members sowed their oats elsewhere for a while, this superlative crew is back in the race on fresh legs.
“When I was in my mid-20s, my whole world revolved around Primus, as did the other guys’,” said Claypool in a phone interview from his Bay-area hide-out. “Now we have families, we have other interests, we have other projects.”
Primus, he promises, “is back — but it’s not going to be the sole focus of any of us.”
Claypool, in particular, has been a busy boy during the trio’s hiatus, playing with everybody from Police drummer Stewart Copeland and nouveau-hippie guitar god Trey Anastasio (Phish, Oysterhead) to P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and the mysterious, guitar-wielding oddity Buckethead in Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. Asheville’s own Warren Haynes sat in with the visionary bassist in recent years, and Claypool has also worked extensively in the interim with his Flying Frog Brigade, an experience he credited as part of the inspiration for the current nightly rendition of Sailing the Seas of Cheese.
“Years ago, with the Frog Brigade, we did two sets, and we did Pink Floyd’s Animals in its entirety,” says Claypool. (A beautiful, nearly flawless rendition of that epic album is available on one of Frog Brigade’s live CDs.)
“I remember at the time thinking, ‘God, it would be amazing to do this with Primus with either Frizzle Fry, Seas of Cheese or Pork Soda [the band’s first three studio efforts],'” he continues.
“There are certain records, like Animals, for me, that I won’t put it on and listen to unless I can listen to it from start to finish,” Claypool explains.
Seas of Cheese certainly cruises through that test — a superlative string of tracks that hustle through the listener’s mind like an overdue freight train.
Tunes like “Is it Luck,” “Sgt. Baker” and “American Life” highlight a record full of lyrical wit and compositional complexity set to Claypool’s boggling work on his fretless, six-string bass — an instrument he began working with for the first time as the band got set to record Cheese.
“I was having a six-string built, and then I called [the builder] up halfway through it and said, ‘Hey, make it a fretless,'” recalls Claypool. “I really wanted a challenge. Then I get the thing a couple of months before we made the record, and I was, like, ‘Holy s••t.’ It was like trying to play an octopus.”
Herb, he reveals, “[was dealing with] the same thing: He gets this giant drum kit the day we go into the studio, and he’d never even set it up before. … So there was a lot of sort of odd interpretation of the music.”
With these new instruments, he says, “we were dancing on the edge.” They’re still there.
[Freelance writer Stuart Gaines is based in Asheville.]
Primus plays the arena at the Asheville Civic Center Wednesday, March 10, starting at 8 p.m. General-admission tickets ($31) are available at the Civic Center box office or through Ticketmaster (251-5505). Info: 259-5544.