There’s no denying Les Claypool’s legacy. His captivating bass-guitar skills and peculiar vocal delivery helped make Primus one of the highlights of 1990s rock. For more about Primus, and how their shifting sound has continued to keep the band on the road and in the public eye, check out my recent piece in our sister paper.
But there’s a lot more to Claypool than Primus. He continues to lend his unique musical wizardry to a number of other projects and sounds, including Oysterhead (with Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland), Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains (with Buckethead, Bernie Worrell and Bryan “Brain” Mantia) and the Claypool Lennon Delirium (with Sean Ono Lennon). His latest project is Les Claypool’s Bastard Jazz, which you can catch at Pappy and Harriet’s on Saturday, July 30.
During a recent phone interview, Claypool explained how Bastard Jazz started as a one-off—for Colossal Clusterfest, in 2017.
“A handful of years ago, I was asked to put something together for a festival in San Francisco,” Claypool said. “I decided I wanted to do an all-improv thing, and I’d been talking about doing it for a while. It ended up being Skerik, Mike Dillon and Eric Harland. Gabby La La came and sat in, and it was incredibly fun. People started asking me to do it again, and we’ve got Stanton Moore on board these days, so now it’s Stanton and I, Skerik and Mike—and we have no idea what we’re going to do before we go onstage. We just go on and start that musical conversation.”
Most of Claypool’s live shows, no matter the group, feature songs being stretched and jammed—but it had been awhile since he played a fully improvisational show, he said.
“The very first Bucket of Bernie Brains show we did years ago at Bonnaroo, that’s exactly what it was,” Claypool said. “They were supposed to play as Praxis, but somebody couldn’t make it, so I said, ‘Well, hell, I’ll just do an improv thing,’ and so we did it. It turned out to be a big project for me, and it was a lot of fun. That was the very first time I played a single note with Bernie Worrell—in front of, like, 7,000 people; it was incredible. For me, it’s incredibly liberating, because you’re just letting go. There’s no safety net, but the guys that you’re playing with are such monsters that you have this confidence, no matter what happens. It’s like having the guards up at the bowling alley: The ball’s not going to go in the gutter.”
Skerik and Mike Dillon are frequent Claypool collaborators, as both have played with Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Stanton Moore is the founding member of another great jam band, Galactic.
“We started off as a show here, and then a show there, and then my manager said, ‘Hey, all these guys are available; you want to do a little mini tour?’” Claypool said. “It’s very, very casual. What’s wonderful about it is I don’t have to rehearse for it. I know these guys; they’re all monsters, and something amazing is going to happen. Sure, there might be a couple of stumbles across the tightrope there, but for the most part, some really cool shit comes out when we do it.”
Claypool is known for food references in his songwriting—and he indulged me with one when I asked him about his constant drive to experiment with new projects.
“It’s like if you love sushi, but you eat sushi every night, you need a burger once in a while,” said Claypool. “This is my burger.”
With a number of different projects comes a busy schedule. Claypool is seemingly always on the road; how does he make time for everything?
“It’s not my department,” he said. “I genuinely don’t know what’s going on; my wife knows the schedule better than I do. I mean, I kind of have a rough idea. I know we’re (Primus) going to Europe in the fall, but I don’t know when we leave. I don’t even know where it starts—but I like that, because I’m so busy, and I’m so involved with so many things, not just in the music world, but just in my life, that I enjoy the blissful ignorance of the details of scheduling and whatnot. It’s just one less compartment in my brain that gets cluttered.”
Claypool has mentioned in other interviews that during the early portion of the pandemic, he didn’t craft music at all; instead, he worked on his property in Sonoma County. It was all about the land for more than a year, until Primus started gearing up for their A Tribute to Kings tour, which has them performing Rush’s A Farewell to Kings in its entirety.
“We bought this old dairy, and we turned it into a jam-rehearsal facility, so it’s just been balls to the wall ever since we started,” Claypool said. “Once we started working on the Rush stuff and polishing that all up, I started recording more things with Primus, and recording some stuff with Lennon—and me and Billy Strings are working on some stuff. I’ve been keeping pretty busy since the spark came back, because during COVID, my musical spark was pretty dead.
“People always say, ‘How do you do this?’ Well, if I’m not feeling it, I don’t do it. If you’ve got to force it, it becomes contrived, so when I’m not feeling it, I go and try to catch a fish, or I go work on a car, or I do something else. With COVID, it was just such a dark time. I just got way into the land and worked in the land with my excavator, and I did some painting. I had to become tired of something else so that I would crave doing music again.”
Performing material from Rush—a band of which Claypool is both a fan and a friend—has done more than just reinvigorate Primus, Claypool said.
“I think more than anything, playing the Rush material has inspired a lot of things,” he said. “It inspired us to actually work together, because we hadn’t really rehearsed quite like that ever, and it was intense. That inspired the Conspiranoid EP that we just released—and I played a little keyboard on that, because I had to play keyboards on the Rush stuff.
“As far as affecting Bastard Jazz, that’s more just me getting together with some old friends and just blowing it out. It’s just balls to the wall, a very honest expression. There’s no preconceived anything.”
Well, there actually is one preconception for Bastard Jazz: Claypool is sticking to just one instrument.
“I like playing my regular old four-string bass and just kind of going for it,” said Claypool. “It’s my comfortable crayon, and my favorite crayon in the box.”
Les Claypool’s Bastard Jazz will perform at 7 p.m., Saturday, July 30, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $40 in advance. For tickets or more information, call 760-228-2222, or visit pappyandharriets.com.