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Does Primus Really Suck?

The San Francisco trio, whose music mixes thrash, funk and progressive rock, has built a devoted following of fans on the alternative scene

Primus
David Tonge/Getty Images
October 31, 1991

Primus sucks! Primus sucks!"

Primus has just finished its set at the Warfield Theater in its hometown of San Francisco, the climax of a triumphant sold-out tour. And 2500 people are chanting, "Primus sucks!" Actually, it's the fans' way of coaxing the band back for an encore, the shibboleth of a burgeoning cult following that has made Primus the hottest band on the alternative scene.

Primus bassist, vocalist and all-around figurehead Les Claypool explains that in the band's early days, "We'd just get up there and say, 'We're Primus, and we suck.' And it kind of caught on." The band helped it along with PRIMUS SUCKS T-shirts adorned with various things that suck, such as a vacuum cleaner or a baby with a bottle. "I think it's the greatest thing, myself," says Claypool. "I mean, somebody can come right up to me and say, 'You guys really suck.' And I would just take it as a compliment."

The joke runs pretty deep – Claypool has a cartoon mosquito tattooed on his head because "skeeters suck, too." On his right arm, he's got a tattoo of the Cat in the Hat toting a heaping plateful of green eggs and ham, but that's another story.

And Primus doesn't suck. The band practically stole the show on the ill-fated Gathering of the Tribes tour, which also featured Fishbone, X and Steve Earle, and is currently holding its own on the Anthrax-Public Enemy tour. Primus's third album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, just hit the 200,000 mark in sales, and the group recently sold out the Palace in L.A. in just four hours. And for all the self-deprecation, all three band members boast staggering chops. Larry LaLonde, a student of Joe Satriani's for three years, makes his guitar sing at high velocity, squall uncontrollably or peal out perplexing dissonances; Tim Alexander's crisp, tricky drumming – full of mighty double-bass-drum bursts and startling syncopations from all corners of his mammoth kit – recalls art-rock maestro Bill Bruford.

But the band's focal point is the charismatic Claypool, a prodigious bassist whose playing can suggest both drum and rhythm-guitar parts, enabling Alexander and LaLonde to freak freely while he talk-sings in a variety of cartoonish voices that would make Mel Blanc proud.

Onstage, the lanky Claypool looks like he holds down a day job at the Ministry of Silly Walks, stalking back and forth from the mike like an ostrich, doing a rubber-limbed Lindy Hop, twirling around while stomping a long outstretched leg, all the while tossing off the most baffling bass lines. "He was a bouncing boy," his mother recalls, shouting over the din of an after-show party. "He used to like to jump in his jumpy chair. I think that's where he got the strength in his legs. I never saw anybody who could jump as well as he did in that jumpy chair."

Tonight, Claypool wears Birkenstocks and loud – no, deafening – black-and-white plaid pants, a red plaid vest and a straw cowboy hat with a jaunty red plume. Backstage after the show, Claypool's proud dad, sporting a Primus T-shirt that says Suck on This, has an even more questionable sartorial sense. "He wouldn't wear some pants I got for him because they were too wild," the elder Claypool says. "So I wear 'em."

Claypool is at the center of a group of friends he affectionately calls the Bastards; he's given them all nicknames, like Flapjack and Brain and Flouncer. Claypool himself is nicknamed Snapper – for unprintable reasons – as well as Granddad, "because I'm just a crotchety old bastard and I'm the oldest one in the group." LaLonde is twenty-three, Alexander is twenty-six. "I'm forty-eight," declares Claypool, 28.

Primus's songs are little more than chants ("they're like pirate ditties," says Claypool) laid over teeming, hypnotic riffs that are as fascinating as they are visceral. Although Primus is pegged as a thrash-funk band, there's a lot more to it than that. The band members unashamedly cite Rush as an influence, and the music also contains echoes of Public Image Ltd., Stanley Clarke, the Residents and especially King Crimson.

With Faith No More leading the way, San Francisco is the epicenter of the thrash-funk scene. And everybody there seems to know one another. Claypool's good friend Mike Bordin, drummer for Faith No More, was a guest on "Seas of Cheese"; Claypool sang on Faith No More's hit "Epic." And Primus shares a sensibility, show bills and side projects with such up-and-coming Bay Area bands as the Limbomaniacs, Fungo Mungo and Psychefunkapus; Primus has also befriended stylistic compatriots, such as Jane's Addiction, Living Colour and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Claypool first met his best friend, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, in high school and auditioned for Metallica after bassist Cliff Burton died. He figures he blew it after he jokingly proposed jamming on an Isley Brothers tune. Metallica was not amused. "I had really short hair then, and I guess that didn't help, either," deadpans Claypool.

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