By Matt Pamatmat
There is footage on the Primus DVD Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People where, during the band’s classic “My Name Is Mud,” multiple Les Claypools assault the stage with bass guitars, imitators mimicking the Primus frontman’s gangly knee-stomp. It’s a good analogy for Claypool, whose post-Primus years have seen him in various and seemingly unending configurations: musician, novelist, mockumentarian.
Like Pink Floyd’s crazy diamond, Claypool remains a many-faceted renaissance man, mutating and evolving over the years but always keeping some trademark thread that runs through all he does, that permeates whatever media he works in. As I found out by getting the chance to talk with him on the phone, he is not the stereotypical rock star; he’s articulate, even eloquent, down-to-earth and self-deprecating, a seriously talented individual but one who doesn’t take himself, or anything, too seriously.
From the early days of Primus, originally called Primate, when Claypool would slink across the stage giving his trademark hand-shaking wave to the audience, to his various collaborations with an eclectic cast of musicians, he has remained a wellspring of creativity and a raconteur of the seedier, weirder side of existence. This Dec. 31, he brings his traditionally unpredictable annual New Year’s Eve bash to the North Bay.
Since the early ’90s, Claypool and his family have called the North Bay home. As he sings in the Primus song “Coddingtown”: “Moved on up to Sono-Co to clear my head of smog.” North Bay references figure prominently in Claypool’s songs, from Del Davis’ Christmas Tree farm on Highway 116 to D’s Diner in Sebastopol. The video for the Primus song “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver” was filmed at Petaluma’s battleworn Phoenix Theater.
Unlike musicians who unsuccessfully break free of a popular band to pursue solo interests, Claypool’s talents have only diversified over time. An iconoclastic artist always with a new trick up his sleeve, Claypool has used his down time from Primus to swap ideas and record with musicians as diverse as the Police’s Stewart Copeland, Funkadelic and later Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell, KFC-container-wearing guitarist Buckethead, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and others. These collaborations have also resulted in some interesting band names, as the Worrell, Buckethead and (second Primus drummer) Brain project was dubbed Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. By occasionally engaging in other pursuits, the bassist has helped keep Primus relevant while allowing time for members to explore new dimensions, as with original drummer Tim Alexander’s latest band, Fata Morgana.
Of late, Claypool directed and starred in a mockumentary about the jam-band scene, Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo (partially filmed in Marin County), as well as sitting down to write the novel South of the Pumphouse and releasing the album Of Whales and Woe. Claypool cites Bukowski, David Sedaris, Terence McKenna and Groucho Marx, among others, as literary influences. The novel, Claypool’s first, is in its fifth printing.
“I had someone throw a copy of Pumphouse at the taxicab I was leaving in,” Claypool said on the phone from home, where he is recuperating after a recent combined book and Primus tour. “I wasn’t able to sign their copy and had to get going, and they were pretty pissed,” he chuckles.
Not long after Animals Should Not hit the stores, Claypool released a DVD showcasing his solo and post-Primus collaborations, 5 Gallons of Diesel, the title of which comes from a line in the brutal, postapocalyptic, oh-shit-we-ran-out-of-oil sci-fi film Road Warrior. “The movie theater where I grew up would show it late at night,” he explains. “If there wasn’t anything else to do, we’d go see Road Warrior.”
Then there is Claypool’s traditional New Year’s Eve shows. Decked out in creative raiment, he holds an almost messianic sway over his flock, his bass an instrument of truth as he leads his so-called fancy band. Claypool has been known in past New Years’ to celebrate with a bellyful of magic mushrooms. Part of the tradition is a “best hat” contest, making New Year’s shows with Claypool a surreal distant cousin of Sunday at a Baptist church.
Claypool’s band features members who helped him–circa the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade era–perform Pink Floyd’s bitter concept album Animals live in its entirety. This year, Claypool’s 16th time hosting, should be especially festive, with the recent political thumping of the neo-cons sure to make the outspoken, left-leaning Claypool smile. A Willy Wonka of a newer, less innocent age, Claypool nonetheless gives us reason to hope–or at least to bounce up and down.
Les Claypool’s New Year’s Eve Hatter’s Ball is slated for Sunday, Dec. 31, from 7pm. With DJ Malarkey, the New Orleans Social Club–featuring George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli, Ivan Neville, Henry Butler and Raymond Weber–members of the Meters and the Neville Brothers–and funny funksters the Coup. Santa Rosa Fairgrounds Grace Pavilion, 1375 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. $50-$100; all ages. Vehicle camping available. 707.861.2035.