By Eddie Jorgensen
SEBASTOPOL (CBS SF) — Ever prolific Bay Area bass hero Les Claypool had another busy year in 2016, introducing a collaboration with Sean Lennon and a new beverage with Sea Pop as well as playing festival shows with his workhorse band, Primus.
Claypool was born in Richmond, California, but his family eventually moved to the humble town of El Sobrante where his musical career eventually took shape. He released his first proper record full-length record as part of the thrash metal quartet Blind Illusion in 1986. While the group went through member changes before he joined, the record also featured guitarist Larry LaLonde, who had made his name with seminal Bay Area thrash band, Possessed. LaLonde would end up being Claypool’s creative partner in Primus.
Both bands played many Bay Area venues during their early years, but it was Primus that caught on like wildfire around the club and theater scene in the North Bay, building their fan base with regular shows in Cotati, Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Guerneville. In 1994, Claypool would make his home and start a family in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.
Claypool introduced an element of self-deprecating comedy into the band’s performances — “Primus Sucks” was an early band slogan and frequent rallying cry for fans at live shows — that stood in counterpoint to his unorthodox, virtuoso style of bass playing that made followers stare in awe.
Though Primus has remained his main creative outlet, Claypool has diversified with a rotating string of bands (Sausage, the Fearless Frog Brigade, the Fancy Band and most recently his stripped-down Duo Du Twang) and collaborative projects. His extracurricular activities include recordings and tours with everyone from the short-lived Oysterhead project (featuring Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Trey Anastasio from Phish), experimental troubadour and fellow North Bay resident Tom Waits, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains (which included guitar wizard and regular live guest Buckethead and the late P-Funk keyboard great Bernie Worrell), jamband Gov’t Mule and King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew to name a few.
For his latest side project, the bass player teamed up with renowned solo artist and Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger guitar player Sean Lennon (son of Beatle John) to found the Claypool Lennon Delirium. Hatched after fruitful post-gig jam sessions during a joint summer tour by their two main bands, the pair convened at Claypool’s home studio in Sebastapol for a month and a half of psychedelic noodling that gave birth to their debut prog/space-rock album, Monolith Of Phobos. Issued in June on ATO Records, the album earned solid reviews and gave the band a reason to tour through the summer.
As luck would have it, their meeting was rather serendipitous.
“We were looking for an opening act for an act for a Primus tour we did with Dinosaur Jr. a while back, and it came to my attention that Sean wanted to do the tour,” said Les Claypool during a recent phone interview. Ultimately, it was Sean’s music that sealed the deal.
“I went on YouTube and saw his ‘Animals’ video and ended up asking him a bit after. Next thing you know, he met up with my wife and my son and we were jamming on the back of a tour bus and interesting things were coming out,” explained Claypool. “Later on, I asked him to come out to Rancho Relaxo [Claypool’s home studio located on his estate] and it just worked out.”
On whether he had a good time writing with Lennon and had any songs he liked more than the others, Claypool resisted making any comparisons to other creative partners. “It was very easy writing with Lennon, I have to say. However, I really don’t like the term favorites,” he said.
When pressed on how writing with Sean Lennon compared to earlier projects, he likened his projects to having conversations.
“I really think any musical interaction is a conversation. Also, any conversation is different depending on who you’re talking to,” Claypool said. “Good conversation happens when you’re learning something and the conversation is flowing freely.”
More importantly, Claypool has used technology to his advantage to capture his musical conversations and record music at his own studio without facing outlandish recording costs. “Unfortunately, you can’t avoid technology. Whether you’re receiving a telegram or having a face-to-face interaction. Both can work as long as it’s an efficient medium and the messages come across,” said Claypool.
As far as releasing more records are concerned with Lennon, Claypool is not in any hurry.
“We’ve been out most of the summer and have three weeks of touring to go,” said Claypool. “We’ll see what happens. I’m sure we’ll do something.”
His move to the much quieter confines of Sonoma County made perfect sense given his once hectic touring schedule. Unlike the days when his band was under pressure from the label and management alike, everything today is very much on Claypool’s own terms. He lives comfortably and has found a happy medium between touring, recording, and marketing the wares of his other venture, Claypool Cellars.
Founded in 2007, the family business has taken off in a big way. Claypool’s sense of humor shines through on the awkward yet appropriately named varietals he sells and stocks, including Purple Pachyderm Pinot Noir and the newly released Champagne Pachyderm. All can be tasted by boarding the Claypool Cellars’ hilariously dubbed Fancy Booze Caboose tasting station in Sebastopol.
His newest concoction of the non-alcoholic variety is dubbed Sea Pop. And much like his ridiculous, light-hearted banter and lyrics, the natural soda’s artwork is fun and the drink is sweet without containing any extra additives.
“I have to say, it’s not actually a ginger beer. It’s a whole new bubbly beverage with a different taste profile. This is not a ginger beer whatsoever and it is much sweeter,” said Claypool.
Sea Pop is only available at a handful of stores currently, as major distribution has yet to be determined.
Despite Claypool’s workaholic nature, fans can expect the bassist to take an extended break from touring, though there will likely be some new Claypool Cellars events featuring live music. There’s no telling where Claypool’s creative nature will take him next; possibly making some edible dairy products to go with his specialty wines. After all, Primus did release an album in 1991 called Sailing The Seas Of Cheese.
Sound crazy? Stranger things have happened.
Claypool will celebrate another milestone this New Year’s Eve with his Silver Anniversary Extravaganza at the Fox Theater in Oakland, marking the bassist’s 25th annual celebration for the holiday. For the festivities, he will pull triple duty by playing sets with Duo Du Twang and the Claypool Lennon Delirium before a show-closing performance by Primus.