Does Primus Really Suck?

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The Warfield Crowd is as eclectic as the music, a peculiar blend of skate punks, Deadheads, metalheads, clean-cut college kids and the odd Gothic trendy; they sport jams, dreadlocks, partially shaved heads and the obligatory backward baseball cap.

Scores of moshing kids tumble over the crowd barrier in a human waterfall; like spawning salmon, only the fittest make it to the stage and dive off. A daring few climb the PA stacks and jump into the crowd a good twenty feet below. A decade ago, this bunch would have embraced much mellower music, but in a meaner, rougher nation, even the flower children slam-dance. For some reason, about a dozen shoes get tossed onstage.

Two girls work their way to the lip of the stage. They go berserk after managing to touch Claypool's foot. They are Noelle, 15, and Karen, 17. "I love him so much and I touched him! God!" Noelle raves later.

"He dripped on us!" squeals Karen, who explains the secret of Primus's appeal. "It's real life," she says. "We can't relate to M.C. Hammer. 'You can't touch this' – what does that mean? I don't know."

Claypool's lyrics are real life. Cartoonish celebrations of the mundane, his shaggy-dog stories feature characters like C.G. the Mexican, the verbose Harold of the Rocks and even former members of the band. "It's true stories – you go with what you know," says Claypool, which explains the inordinate amount of nautical imagery – there's nothing Claypool would rather do than go fishing. Or eat Corn Chex and get stoned in front of the TV. "He liked to watch TV a lot," says Claypool's mom. "I think that's where he got a lot of his ideas. He'd sit there on his little tiny plastic motorcycle that he had and watch cartoons."

Claypool's blue-collar background is another frequent topic. A former carpenter, he comes from a working-class Bay Area town called El Sobrante, which, as he is fond of pointing out, translates as "the leftovers." "I was raised in the land of Budweiser," he says. His father is a mechanic, and so was his grandfather, but somehow, Lester Claypool was not destined to twiddle wrenches. "I would have blasted out one way or another," he says, his braids trailing from a fading mohawk.

Nothing if not a rugged individualist, Claypool invites fellow misfits on board on the title track of Sailing the Seas of Cheese. When "the cold wind of conformity is nipping at your nose," he whines, "come with us, we'll sail the seas of cheese." The fierce "Sgt. Baker" blasts the army's cookie-cutter mentality, while the eleven-beat meter of "Eleven" is a metaphor for a character who "just can't seem to blend into society." Even the band's odd coupling of thrash, funk and progressive rock is a statement.

"It's always been the potato chip up our ass to do what we want," says Claypool matter-of-factly. Early on, he built a printing press so the band could sell T-shirts at gigs; Primus keeps recording budgets low, so it quickly turns a profit. "We've been self-sufficient for a number of years now," says Claypool. "So it's always been in our nature to have control." Unlike most new bands, the members of Primus produce their own records, shoot their own videos, even design their own album covers.

Claypool saw what happened to San Francisco's once-vibrant world-beat scene – "they all waited around for the major-label deal, and when they got it, they weren't ready for it" – and vowed the same thing wouldn't happen to Primus. So he borrowed $1000 from his dad to press the band's live debut album, Suck on This. On the advice of friends in Faith No More and Metallica, the group sought a one-album contract and released the alternative smash Frizzle Fry on the venerable indie label Caroline Records.

Free agents, the band decided to brave the seas of corporate cheese and sign to a major, Interscope Records (a division of Atlantic). It's been smooth sailing for Primus ever since, but it doesn't seem to have affected Claypool's priorities. "If we sell a shitload of records, yee-hah!" he says. "I'll buy a bigger boat!"

This story is from the October 31st, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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