Les Claypool casts about for a creative spark
By Greg Cahill
"DURING THE PAST couple of years, I've been very uninspired by music in general," says Les Claypool, head honcho of the Grammy-nominated thrash-funk group Primus, during a phone interview from the west Sonoma County home he's dubbed Rancho Relaxo. "Nothing's really gotten me. Since I did this Oyster Head thing [a one-off jam session a few months ago that teamed the avant-rock bassist and vocalist with guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish and drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police] and played with some musicians that are very spontaneous, I'm excited again. I'm very much into playing music--and music that has nothing to do with image or MTV or demographics or any of that.
"It's just music for music's sake."
Enter Col. Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, an improvisational rock band that will perform a handful of West Coast dates, including a night at the Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma on Aug. 20.
In recent months, Claypool has been getting serious about the jam-band scene, a Grateful Dead&-inspired spinoff that includes such popular bands as Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Moe, Vinyl, and Rat Dog (with former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir).
This latest phase of Claypool's long and varied career started earlier this year at Super Jam, an annual event organized by a New Orleans promotion company that enlists musicians to perform once-in-a-lifetime freewheeling jam sessions. "It's this scene where you're encouraged to go out and improvise as much as possible," Claypool explains. "It's not necessarily new, but it is fresh to me. Since New Orleans, the sort of jam-band hippie community has embraced me, and I've been getting offers to do various things."
Offers to do similar projects began pouring in. Some recent ones involved jam sessions at the Mountain Air Festival with Frog Brigade and ex&-Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Other projects have included a date with the New York band the Disco Biscuits (at the JamBand.com awards ceremonies) and another at the Gathering of the Vibes, under the moniker Rat Brigade, which featured some of the same musicians who will join Claypool at the Phoenix Theatre and upcoming dates on both coasts.
"So it's just this thing that has been perpetuating itself," he says. "I'm enjoying it--having a great time."
The rambling repertoire is a far cry from the tightly broken rhythms and surreal lyrical tales for which Primus is known. "A lot of the stuff we're doing is a variation on different cover tunes," he says. "We've done Pink Floyd, Beatles, King Crimson, Tom Waits--various songs that serve as a structure to jam around. When we did Frog Brigade at Mountain Air, it was Jack Irons and Tim Alexander on drums, so we did an 11-minute version of Led Zeppelin's [drum solo opus] 'Moby Dick.' It was pretty awesome. I just sat back and enjoyed it.
"But that's the spirit of it."
At the Phoenix Theatre, the band will consist of former Primus drummer Jay Lane and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, both of Rat Dog; (Primus co-founder) Todd Huth on guitar; and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Eenor.
The addition of Eenor marks a move by Claypool to tap deeper into the avant garde. He met the East Bay musician (whose own band is called Channel 23) after running an employment ad in several Bay Area newspapers.
"I was really taken by his playing," Claypool says, "so I called him up, and subsequently he's now playing for Frog Brigade.
Skerik, a Seattle-based avant-rock saxophonist with Critters Buggin', might also perform at the Petaluma date.
THIS LATEST FORAY into the avant-rock world is in the spirit of Primus, however--the band that the All Music Guide once called "a post-punk Rush spiked with the sensibility and humor of Frank Zappa." The band has recorded 10 CDs over the past decade and gone through a couple of personnel changes. In 1996, Claypool released a solo album, Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel's Highball with the Devil (Interscope), a surrealistic set of "pure self-indulgences"--lyrically cartoony, sonically hallucinogenic song sketches laced with smatterings of twangy surf guitar, early Pink Floyd psychedelia, herky-jerky rhythms, and abstract jazz stylings.
Claypool also has maintained another side project, Sausage, that is somewhat more collaborative than Primus and features former Primus members Huth and Lane. The trio has recorded one album, 1994's Riddles are Abound Tonight (Interscope), and the three toured together that same year.
More recently, Claypool can be heard plucking the bass on the tongue-in-cheek "Big in Japan," from Tom Waits' 1999 CD Mule Variations (Enigma).
An avid cartoonist and aspiring film writer, Claypool recently completed his second screenplay, now making the rounds in Hollywood. He describes it as being "another semi-suburban, mythical, drug-hazed, comedic tragedy," and then adds with a big laugh, "Wow, that's the first time I actually had to do a one-liner on it." MEANWHILE, the current round of jam sessions is allowing Claypool to rekindle his creative spark after the dissolution of the punk-funk scene that once thrived in the San Francisco area. "You know, years ago we had a scene with Primus that was pretty incredible--it was us, the Limbomanics, Mr. Bungle, Psychofunkapus, and Fungo Mungo. Since [Primus] has grown and become an international act, I find that I've lost touch with a lot of what's going on in the Bay Area. And to an extent, there doesn't seem to be that much of a scene [in the region]; it's pretty scattered and unorganized.
"Still it's great to get to play with local musicians again--I've been checking out a lot of local acts and just jamming with a bunch of local musicians.
"For me, that's very exciting. I'm beginning to feel more like a musician again, instead of some rock star with a big house in the country who goes out and plays on big stages every now and again.
"So it feels good."
Col. Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade performs Sunday, Aug. 20, at 8 p.m. at the Phoenix Theatre, 201 Washington St., Petaluma. Tickets are $18. 762-3566.
From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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