Imagine a punkier, thrashier Rush fronted by Mel Blanc. You might get Primus, which look and sound like a cult band despite the fact that their 1991 album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, went gold and their latest release, Pork Soda, recently debuted at No. 7 on the pop charts. Now the San Francisco trio — bassist Les Claypool, guitarist Larry Lalonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander — is headlining Lollapalooza ’93. Claypool, 29, the band’s lyricist, talked between Lollapalooza gigs in Chicago about the band’s unlikely success.
What is your audience?
It’s still pretty much the outer fringe. We’re not a fashionable band. In fact, we look like shit. The only thing I can really compare it to is the popularity of Rush when I was in high school. I think young musicians appreciate us a lot, people who are into trippy, not-normal stuff. We’re not a party band.
What’s the concept behind Pork Soda?
Pork Soda is the exact opposite of what people want from a soda these days. It’s got all the cholesterol, all the calories.
You’re starting a label, Prong Song?
It’s for people who have an oddball side to them or who want to do things that no record company would let them. And the idea is to do it cheap. I just did an album with the Charlie Hunter Trio — he’s the guitar player from the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy — and the recording costs were $110. That’s the idea. Don’t spend any money.
That’s been Primus’ philosophy, too.
My father loaned us $3,000 to do the first one [the live Suck on This in 1989]. We recorded and paid for “Frizzle Fry” as we were working on our deal with Caroline, so they paid us for a record that was already done. We spent $11,000 to record it. Then, after we signed to Interscope, we did Sailing the Seas of Cheese for $30,000, and Pork Soda was $60,000.
After Seas of Cheese went gold, did you get license to make a more elaborate album?
They always talk about working with highfalutin producers. And we’re like, “Nope.” We don’t pinch pennies, but it doesn’t make sense to go into a studio and spend shitloads of money. For Pork Soda, we brought equipment into our rehearsal space so we didn’t have to worry about studio time. And because of the environment, we didn’t pay for pool tables and pinball machines and catering and fancy carpets.
What drew you to the bass?
I started playing at 15, and I heard Ted Nugent started when he was 9 so I figured I had to catch up fast. The bass only had four strings, so I figured it would be easier. I sat in front of the television and noodled. I didn’t have an amp, but I developed a lot of dexterity. Then I met someone in a band who needed a bass player. It all sort of fell in place.
You’re flashier than most bass players. Was it tough finding people to play with?
Not really. Bass players are always in big demand. At 18, I joined this band of older guys who played these biker bars, just doing old R&B covers. That locked me in. After that I started auditioning for bands, because I wanted to find a band that would make it big. There was nothing out there that was worth a shit, so I decided to start my own band [in 1984]. That’s when I started recording and hooked up with Todd [Huth, the band’s original guitarist], except we called ourselves Primate then.
You’ve got a distinctive voice, but you’re not much of a traditional singer. How’d you get around that?
I actually took a couple of voice lessons that gave me the confidence to step up to the mike and belt things out. I sounded like a really bad Public Image-era Johnny Rotten. I’ve improved but not much. I was writing all these lyrics, and I would give them to these vocalists I worked with in different bands, and they all wanted to be Sammy Hagar. Nobody could do it the way I heard it in my head.
In ’89, you suddenly didn’t have a band.
We were selling out 500-seat clubs, and I had no drummer and no guitarist because they both quit. I knew Larry from jamming with this metal band he was in. Meanwhile, through auditions, we met Herb, who pretty much blew everyone away. The three of us had a chemistry that sounded like Primus, but it was different than before. I was nervous as hell the first show we did, but our original fans accepted us.
Where’d the Primus Sucks! motto come from?
That came about years before Larry and Herb joined. People would follow us around telling us how cool we were, and we’d be like “Nah, we suck.” It evolved, and then it became good marketing. We’d go down the street, and someone will yell, “You suck,” and I’ll say, “Oh, thank you very much,” which freaks out whoever’s with you.
Some people take those “Those Damn Blue Collar Tweakers” on Sailing the Seas of Cheese as a put-down, but that’s really about your upbringing isn’t it?
I was born in a suburb by the East Bay, a rural, almost redneck environment. I grew up on the blue-collar side of town. My father was a mechanic, both my uncles are mechanics, my grandfather was a mechanic. That song is not derogatory at all. It’s very much me. A tweaker is someone who is strung out on methyl amphetamines, otherwise known as crank. There’s a reference in there to a guy who hung Sheetrock, and that’s how he got through the day. He’d snort up speed to keep up with the younger guys.
Your songs are populated with weird, fringe characters: the Pressman, Nature Boy, Bob, Mud.
Some of them are true to life. But I’ve always been into songs that tell a story or create a visual effect. I remember as a kid listening to old Disney records and musicals. I bought “Amos Moses,” the Jerry Reed song about this guy hunting alligators. I thought that was the greatest. It’s a good way to get viewpoints out there without actually sticking yourself in that situation.
You guys are Rush fans, not exactly the coolest band in Lollapalooza land.
It was cool to like ’em if you were in high school and wanted to be a musician, but you didn’t get any girls by liking Rush. And I don’t really think you’re getting any girls by liking Primus, either. You’ve gotta be true to your roots, only thing is mine are all over the place — the Residents, Rush, Larry Graham, Tony Levin. What frustrates me is the narrow-minded people who only have roots here or there. And how many bands out there are making shitloads of money by sounding exactly like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana? It’s good to have a broad base of influences and to acknowledge that. If it wasn’t for Geddy Lee, I probably wouldn’t be playing bass.