On November 16th, 1978, Rush came through the Bay Area on their Hemispheres tour. In the audience at the band’s Cow Palace show that night was a young Les Claypool, and 40-some years later, the Primus bassist still seems awed by what he witnessed.
“Hemispheres was my first concert,” Claypool says. “Little 14-year-old guy who just threw up in the parking lot from drinking three Löwenbräus, having my mind blown by watching these guys do their thing.”
This spring and summer, he’ll have the chance to relive that adolescent thrill over and over, except this time he’ll be the one onstage. From late May through early August, Claypool and his Primus bandmates Larry LaLonde and Tim Alexander will honor their musical heroes on a massive tour where they’ll cover A Farewell to Kings — Hemispheres’ 1977 predecessor and the first Rush album Claypool ever heard — in full every night, before playing a full set of Primus’ own songs.
For Claypool, this will be the latest in a long series of surreal Rush-related milestones. Primus opened for Rush on tour in 1992, and since then the bassist has crossed paths with the prog legends many times. In 2006, Claypool performed at Rush’s Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, and last year, Geddy Lee sat in with the Claypool Lennon Delirium in Toronto.
But the upcoming tour, called A Tribute to Kings, will no doubt take on added significance in light of the death of iconic Rush drummer Neil Peart in January. The timing, as it turns out, is a complete coincidence; Primus’ Rush covers run had been in the works since last year.
“We’re trying to be very sensitive about doing the tour and not having it be, ‘Hey, all about Neil,’ ” Claypool says. “It’s about admiration for these amazing musicians and friends.”
On the phone from Colorado, where he was gearing up for the first Oysterhead show since 2006, Claypool discussed how the tour came about, what fans can expect from the shows, and why he’s already nervous about hitting those late-Seventies Geddy Lee high notes.
Primus have been covering Rush for decades now, but how did the idea of this particular tour come about?
Well, we had talked about doing an album in its entirety a while ago. Frog Brigade did Pink Floyd’s Animals in its entirety years ago, and it was an insane amount of work but it was also incredibly gratifying. We did the Willy Wonka thing with Primus, and we’d always talked about potentially doing Hemispheres because that was my first concert, and it may have been Ler’s [LaLonde] first concert too, actually. And when it finally came down to it, we started looking at the different records and settled on Farewell to Kings.
So when did you decide that you were definitely going to do this tour?
[Our manager] Brad brought it to us last summer, I believe; last spring he started talking to Live Nation. So Live Nation thought it was a good idea, and that’s the tour, so away we’re going. We were going to do it last fall and then this whole Slayer thing came up. We had been talking about doing something with Slayer on and off over the years, and then the opportunity to do the final-final [tour in 2019] and send these guys off was a pretty cool thing, so we postponed the Kings tour.
Primus covered a bit of “Cygnus X-1 Book I” from A Farewell to Kings on that Slayer tour. Was that intended as a secret sneak preview?
Well, we had started learning the tunes, and I throw in the “Cygnus” bass teaser every now and then throughout the years. That’s the thing about Rush tunes: The three of us tend to know lots of bits and pieces but very few entire songs because it’s fuckin’ Rush; it’s just hard. So it’s always been a common ground for the three of us. In fact, I remember when the three of us first got together, that was one of the things we bonded on as we sat there and jammed on bits and pieces of Rush songs. So the notion of doing the Slayer thing and doing even more of “Cygnus” seemed like a fun thing to do, so we did it.
So I heard that you actually had a talk with Geddy Lee about this before the tour was confirmed. What do you recall about that conversation?
I talked to Geddy about it, yeah. I texted with him — I keep in touch with Geddy — just to make sure we weren’t trodding on something weird. So I checked in with him to see what he thought of it, and he was excited about the notion.
Do you remember anything in particular that he said?
He just got excited; he thought it was a great idea. You know, we go way back with those guys, so I think it made him feel good that it was going to be us that was going to do this thing. But I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. I can’t put words in his mouth, but he seemed excited about it.
You toured with Rush back in ’92. Did you actually meet them on the road or before?
No, we met them backstage. I think Albuquerque was the first gig; I’m not absolutely sure. But, no, the three of us had been huge Rush fans in our teens, so when the opportunity came up to do that tour, it was pretty surreal. And then to meet those guys and then to befriend those guys and the subsequent years of friendship and whatnot was pretty amazing. And like I said, it was surreal at first, just ’cause there’s frickin’ Geddy and Alex and Neil standing in front of us and banging on lockers and whatnot backstage. It was an interesting time for young fiery lads coming up the ladder.
Tell me more about the banging on lockers. You guys were jamming?
Yeah, we used to have little impromptu jams backstage. We had a little jam set up. And you know, we’re in all these locker rooms because we’re playing basketball arenas and whatnot, so we’d have these jams. And one day Neil would be banging on the kit; one day he’d be banging on the lockers; one day there’s Alex playing guitar using a tortilla chip for a pick. It was good times.
So in the subsequent years, you’ve remained pretty close to them?
Well, there’s been long periods where I hadn’t seen any of these guys. The last time I saw Neil was at Stewart Copeland’s house. He had one of his Sacred Grove jams, and it was he and I and Neil and Danny Carey, and Matt Stone was there. I haven’t seen Alex in a while; Geddy and I and Alex went to dinner a few years ago when they were in San Francisco. We just kind of check in once in a while. But Geddy interviewed me for his book that he did, and we hung out. And part of the deal was, if I did his book he had to show me the correct way to play “YYZ,” which he did, and of course, I’ve been playing it wrong all these years. It’s always good to get schooled by Geddy Lee, you know? [Laughs] It keeps you humble.
Out of curiosity, how many times did you see Rush, and when was the last time?
Last time I saw them was on the — what’s the tour they did that was like the Jules Verne…the last record they did?
Correct, correct. We saw it in Vegas. In fact, I brought Stewart to that show. So that was the last time I saw them live. I don’t know how many Rush shows I saw. Obviously, we played a shitload of them, but prior to playing with them, I’d seen them at least once a year, maybe twice a year, from Hemispheres up through Signals.
So we have to speak about the elephant in the room, which is Neil’s death. Can you tell me how that might have affected these tour plans, if at all?
Well, it makes the plans a little more… We’re trying to be as sensitive as we possibly can, so it doesn’t appear like we’re just jumping on the, “Hey, a superhero has died — let’s go out and do a tribute to him” type thing. So we’re trying to be sensitive to that, and also Neil was a very, very, very private person, so I don’t know how much he would want this or his family would want us talking about a lot of this stuff anyway. So I had known he had been sick for a while. Stewart was pretty close to him up till the end, so I would get little reports through Stewart every now and again as to what was happening. So it wasn’t a huge surprise, but it’s still a very jolting thing. When your heroes and friends start to leave the planet, it snaps you to.
“We’re trying to be as sensitive as we possibly can, so it doesn’t appear like we’re just jumping on the, ‘Hey, a superhero has died — let’s go out and do a tribute to him’ type thing.”
You said that you did have an idea that he was sick, so when this thing was being planned and you were texting with Geddy, did you know at that time that he was not doing well?
I mean, there were rumors that he wasn’t doing well, but we didn’t know to the extent. And I never really talked about it with Geddy. It wasn’t something I really wanted to talk about, and it wasn’t something that even Neil wanted people to talk about. It’s even uncomfortable talking to you about it right now, ’cause like I said, he’s very private, the family’s very private, so I don’t think anybody in that camp really wants to harp on it.
That makes perfect sense. So in terms of the specifics of the tour, why the Farewell to Kings record?
Well, like I said, originally we’d always kind of joked around about doing Hemispheres. That record has always had a very big place in my heart and head. But as we got to thinking about the record and how to tackle it — because it’s not going to be an easy feat, on many levels: A) I gotta try to sing Geddy Lee shit [laughs]. His older stuff is up in the stratosphere. I was texting with Geddy and saying, “Man, is any of this falsetto, or…?” And he was like, “Nope, that’s my full voice.” So I might need some help from the audience on some of this stuff. I gotta play the keyboard parts. But we settled on Kings, because A) it was the first Rush record I ever heard and B) it contains “Cygnus X-1,” which has always been my favorite Rush tune. It seems to be a good one for us to tackle; 2112 seemed a little obvious.
So will this be you guys playing that record and then a Primus set, or it’s just that record?
No, we’ve done this in the past. Like I said, I did it with Frog Brigade with Animals and when Primus did the Wonka thing, we did a set of Primus and then we did the Wonka performance. So this is going to be the Kings set, then a break, then the Primus set.
Obviously there are some other Rush classics on this record like “Xanadu.” What’s rehearsal been like so far with these songs?
Well, we’ve all been learning the material, but the only thing we’ve rehearsed together at this point has been “Cygnus.” And it was hard, but…that’s Rush! [Laughs]
Yeah, you kind of know that going in. So, I know in the past Primus have covered a few Rush songs, and I know you played “The Spirit of Radio” at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction.
I usually don’t get nervous before performances, but I was scared to death for that performance, because it was extremely bizarre. A) The three of them were sitting there staring at us from their box, and B) it was an audience full of socialites; it was people in fancy clothes and jewelry, and I would imagine fake furs. It was an odd thing. It wasn’t a punter crowd.
But as far as Primus, we’ve done “YYZ,” we did “La Villa Strangiato” years ago. But lots of bits and pieces.
Geddy sat in with the Claypool Lennon Delirium last year, helping out on a cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Has it been discussed that he could show up for one of these Tribute to Kings gigs?
Oh, I don’t know; it’s not really on the table. But you never know. I didn’t expect him to come out. Because I knew he was coming to the Toronto show when we did the Delirium show up there, and I said, “Hey, you want to sit in on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’?” And he’s like, “Well, you know, I’m not really a ‘sit-in’ kind of guy, but let me think about it.” And I was like, “All right, don’t worry about it.” Because one thing that drives me insane is, I enjoy sitting in but sometimes I just want to go watch the show, and when you know you have to sit in at a certain point, it kind of makes you not necessarily relax and enjoy the show so much. So I just said, “Hey, look, don’t worry about it. Just come hang and have a good time.” And then when it came down to it, he’s like, “I’m in, and he jumped up there and away we went.” And it was amazing!
Was that the first time you’d been onstage with him?
I believe it was the first time. But then again, the old synapse doesn’t fire like it used to. My hard drive’s a bit fragmented. But it was the first time before a bunch of people. We’ve had little jams before.
This is a broader question, but do you feel that the success of a band as unusual as Rush helped to pave the way for a band like Primus later?
Oh, definitely. Especially when you get to open for them, it helps to leapfrog you into the position of being able to play a place that’s not empty [laughs]. And Rush fans are very…I used to go to those shows and watch the opening bands and watch them not be well-received, and I remember, I don’t know who in particular said it, but back in the day, those guys, even their crew, saying that we were one of the best-received bands that had ever opened for them. So that was a badge of honor right there because I know that fan base. I was there for so many years.
But definitely bands like that paved the way for all of us. And, you know, to me, watching a band like Rush, especially when we were playing with them back then, it was not really cool to be a Rush fan. It was like a guilty pleasure. We actually got a lot of shit, especially from European press, for touring Europe with Rush. Because we were supposed to be this young, new…whatever the hell we were, but we were part of that alternative punk scene, and all of the sudden, here we were. I remember reading some British press, “What the hell’s Primus doing playing with these old prog dinosaurs?”
But perseverance wins the game and those guys…I remember watching them on the Colbert show and going, “Oh, my God, all of the sudden, now Rush is fuckin’ hip!” [Laughs] They just got touched on the shoulder by the magic wand of hipness of Stephen Colbert. And it was a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’ve taken great pleasure in watching those guys become extraordinarily popular these last handful of years, and iconic. And even your entity paying more and more attention to them. Because back when I was a kid, you never read anything in Rolling Stone about Rush or very rarely even heard them on mainstream radio.
Yeah, it’s been amazing. Since the documentary, there’s been a groundswell of interest.
Yeah, and I think for Rush fans, part of that is a bit of a bitter pill, because they were always “our guys.” Those were our guys. It’s like being a Trekkie, or something. It’s a badge of honor; it’s something that not everybody understands or understood, but there was a big community of folks that you can identify with that did. And I’ve always joked that my wife is one of the few women I’ve ever met in my entire life that listened to Rush in her youth, and I always joke that that’s why we’ve been married for so long.
Getting back to the material, what’s it going to be like for you to tackle those Geddy vocals? Have you practiced much yet?
Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be hard! [Laughs] But you know, I’m just gonna have to do it my own way; that’s just the way it is.
And obviously there are also some pretty esoteric lyrics to these Farewell to Kings songs. “Xanadu” comes to mind, in particular.
[Sings “Xanadu”] “To seek the sacred river Alph/To walk the caves of ice.” Of course! I grew up on that stuff. And the lyrics on this record are unbelievable. I used listen to those records and try to put these stories together: [Sings “Cygnus X-1 Book I”] “Through the void/To be destroyed/Or is there something more?/Atomized at the core/Or through the astral door.” I mean, I remember watching that as a 14-year-old, watching the Rocinante go through the black hole up on the screen and just shitting myself the entire time, going, “Oh, my God, this is greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” So I’m stoked. I’m very excited. So I gotta get through these couple Oysterhead gigs tonight and tomorrow, and then I gotta get back hammering on this record.
It must be a real change in gears — it’s such a different sensibility from Oysterhead.
But it’s super fun. You know, I’ve been doing this a long time, and you’ve gotta keep finding stuff that gets you excited to sit down and play your instrument. And this excites me. You know, I bought an old Rickenbacker — I’m gonna sit there and jam on it, man [laughs].
Are you guys all doing that, in terms of re-creating Rush’s old gear setup?
You never know…
Can you say anything about the stage show?
Yeah, we’re working on it. It’s gonna be cool. I mean, I’m very excited, ’cause we get to throwback to being 14 again, maybe 16 [laughs].
See here for the complete list of A Tribute to Kings 2021 tour dates.