Les is a busy man. Aside from fronting one of the most unique and enduring bands from the Alternative Rock era (Primus), Les Claypool has built a successful label (Prawn Song), writes screenplays and has made as many albums with side projects as he did with Primus. His latest release, Purple Onion, is arguably his first solo album, and listening to it recalls the finest moments of his entire quirky 20-year career. His latest band of merry men, the Frog Brigade, earned their wings as an improv outfit, but have turned into princes in the studio as well.
After Primus took a break in 2000, Claypool took a sharp left turn into the Jam Band world, where his bombastic bass stylings have found wide acceptance. Given the aggressive nature of Primus, this might seem surprising, but not to those who saw them in concert.
"Primus never hesitated to stretch out a song live," Claypool recalls. Claypool stuck his toes into Jam territory when he formed Oysterhead (with Phish's Trey Anastasio and Police drummer Stewart Copeland), producing a monumental album and embarking on a sold-out tour. As popular as that lineup was, it was the Frog Brigade that made the biggest splash in the genre, winning a Jammy Award for their first CD, a live, two-disc set. The first disc consisted of old Claypool songs and covers that were no more than springboards for otherworldly solos and high-octane tinkering. The second disc was no less than a complete performance of Pink Floyd's Animals.
Now that Claypool has put a big greasy thumbprint on the Jam Band scene, he has hippie twirlers and tapers as well as the old Primus die-hards coming to his shows.
"The cross-pollination has been great. I've got a core group of fans that is pretty diverse," he says. A volatile mixture perhaps? Claypool isn't worried. "As always, it really depends on the material. In the old days, if we played a lot of aggressive stuff, you'd have this sweaty mass jumping around. But I don't think it was ever a violent crowd."
While he has released CDs with many different projects, Purple Onion is the closest thing to a solo album he has produced. It has the carnival atmosphere that Primus fans adore, and very much resembles their early albums. Which is to be expected, as Claypool did all of the writing, then brought the compositions to his Frog Brigade compatriots. In addition to Frog Brigade alumni, the songs also feature guest performances from members of Fishbone and guitar legend Warren Haynes (Gov't Mule), among others. The album is also full of colorful characters in a host of bizarre situations, a definite Claypool calling card.
"I like to write visually," he demurs.
The witty lyrics also take on both old and emerging social problems. A pair of songs, "David Makalaster" and "David Makalaster II," highlights the current atmosphere of media bias.
"It's easy to be an apathetic American, because you don't know whose news to believe," Claypool says. "The most intelligent people I know seek out multiple sources of information." While this problem is magnified by a new focus on world events, Claypool points out that this isn't a new phenomenon. "It's not any different now than when Hearst ran everything back in the old days. It's just more ... efficient."
Purple Onion is on Claypool's indie label, Prawn Song. While he espouses the advantages of being free from commitments to a major, he admits that his old label was a good match at the time. "As a subsidiary, Interscope took Primus places we otherwise couldn't have gone, and in return they got some street cred for having this successful underground band," he notes. "But if you've got anything original going on nowadays, a major won't know what to do with it."
Of course, Claypool has other projects in the bullpen. "I've got too many bands on the back burner," he quips. There is Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie's Brains, featuring P-Funk All-Star Bernie Worrell as well as Buckethead and Brain (the last Primus drummer), both currently of Guns 'n' Roses. Also rumored is another all-star power trio consisting of Adrian Belew and Tool's Danny Carey. Might there be a "Colonel Claypool's Crimson Tool Tour"? "I just got off the phone with Adrian!" he laughs. "We cut some tracks for his album, so things are happening."
But first things first. The Frog Brigade set out May 1 in support of the new album. With the current lineup being adept at both tight compositions as well as unorthodox improvisation, the live show could go either way.
"I can throw it over to (saxophonist) Skerik, and he'll go on for 10 minutes doing amazing things," Claypool says. "It'll go both ways, most likely."
"It's Halloween every night with the Frog Brigade."
LES CLAYPOOL'S FROG BRIGADE plays Bogart's on Wednesday with Drums & Tuba.