It’s an admirable goal in music to be true to yourself, and Primus has consistently done that over a nearly four-decade run. The band’s sound is difficult to characterize but easy to recognize.
Formed in the San Francisco area in the mid-’80s, Primus coalesced around oddball bassist and frontman Les Claypool to deliver a heady mix of funk, metal and prog. As a result of its varied influences, the trio’s hard-to-pigeonhole sound has allowed it to straddle multiple scenes and genres.
That includes not just the alt-rock scene — Primus grabbed the headlining spot on Lollapalooza 1993 — but also prog and metal tours. The band has opened for anyone from Anthrax to Tool to Public Enemy. Claypool has also collaborated with members of the jamband scene, most notably Phish’s Trey Anastasio, with whom he formed the supergroup Oysterhead.
Each member of Primus brings his own set of musical influences to the party, and they don’t overlap much, save one band: Rush. So, it makes sense that the group — which toured with the Canadian power trio in the early ’90s — is currently performing A Farewell to Kings in its entirety. The A Tribute to Kings tour includes not just Rush’s classic 1977 album in its entirety but also a full set of Primus originals. It stops at San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre on Saturday, April 16 with Battles in the opening slot.
We caught up with Les Claypool on Zoom to talk about the tour, Primus’ history and his love of all things Rush.
Primus played San Antonio in 1991, opening for Rush on the Roll the Bones tour. Do you have any memories of the San Antonio gig or memories of the tour that you’d like to share?
Well, there are many memories of the Roll the Bones tour. I am one of those guys that’s afflicted with I-don’t-remember-anything-about-specific-venues-or-places. Whereas [Primus guitarist] Larry LaLonde could tell you what was on the deli tray and where we went to lunch that afternoon. He remembers every little detail. I do not. Tours tend to be a big blur to me. That being said, here we were young whippersnappers that were meeting our high school heroes, and befriending them, and going out and playing with them. It was a pretty spectacular time of our lives. My first concert ever was Rush Hemispheres, and I was 14. I drank three warm Lowenbraus and threw up in the parking lot of the Cow Palace. Bought a bootleg ticket for too much money even though the show wasn’t sold out, but I was too dumb to know. I remember years later I had that T-shirt from high school, from that show. I wore it to one of the gigs. I’m wearing it down the hall and I’m showing Alex [Lifeson, Rush’s guitarist]. He looks at me and he goes, “it’s a bootleg!”
What’s the hardest song from Farewell To Kings to pull off live?
It’s hard to say, because it’s Rush — it’s all hard. One of the hardest ones is “Madrigal,” because it’s not very Rush-like. You have to kind of switch gears. It’s this pretty little song. I have the big book they put out a couple of years ago with all the tours and setlists. There’s no “Madrigal” on any of the setlists. So, I asked [Rush bassist] Geddy [Lee], “Did you guys ever play that song?” and he goes “I don’t think we ever did.” So, I don’t think they ever played that song live. That being said, the toughest one — purely from an athletic standpoint, and logistics — is “Xanadu.” I have to wear that giant-ass double-neck. And I have to go between that and keyboards and guitar. It’s a juggler. The thing about all these songs is even though it was a lot of work prepping for it, more rehearsal than Primus has ever done ever, in the history of our band, it was a great bonding thing for us, because we haven’t done that since we were kids. It was “let’s write some songs, record ‘em, learn ‘em, let’s go on tour.” Whereas this, we had to get together a lot. And hang out a lot. And play a lot, not just jam and go get some steaks and wine. So, it was a great bonding thing. And we’re gonna do it again next week because we haven’t played it since last tour, so we gotta get together and knock the tarnish off. So, I don’t know which is harder, but it’s actually been a great thing for us.
The non-Rush part of the setlist varies from night to night. What goes into choosing the Primus songs you’re gonna play? Or maybe you’ll throw in an Oysterhead song? A little of “Polka Dot Rose.”
I think that’s something I snuck in [as a tease]. The guys didn’t realize. They won’t go for me putting in no Oysterhead songs (laughs). It’s not their band. What the hell? They don’t want to do that. They’re gonna be like, “What? Are we gonna play some Laundry tunes?” But it’s been like that for years. However we’re feeling. It depends on the vibe of the day. What the weather’s like. What the crowd’s like. Is it an indoor gig? Is it an outdoor gig? How hungover we are. It’s sorta just every day. That dictates the vibe. I think it’s just a natural reflection of being a human. If you’re going into a room full of people, what kind of conversation you’re gonna have depends on the mood of the day.
If you guys — in some bizarro alternate universe — were contractually obligated to do a second Rush tour and you had to choose an album post-Moving Pictures, what would you do?
Well, first of all, we are living in an alternate reality. I don’t know if you’re watching the fucking news. Somebody has scripted this shit the past three years. It was written by Ray Bradbury or something. But I would pick Signals. It was kind of the last Rush record for me before I went off and discovered the rest of the world of music. Because I was such a devoted Rush fan that they absorbed my listening time quite a bit. But after that I got into Public Image Ltd. and old Peter Gabriel and Fred Frith and a lot of the old-school funk and soul. That was all from blossoming out of that era. Signals may have been the last Rush concert I paid for. I saw a lot of Roll the Bones shows.
During the ’90s, Primus cut across a wide swath of the culture. There was Lollapalooza, then fast forward a few years, and you’re doing jamband shows with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. You’re sitting in with Phish. Not to mention you’ve got the Anthrax and Public Enemy tour in there. What was it about your music that made it possible to jump back and forth?
We’re still jumping all over the place. It’s like anything else. It’s the nature of your influences. Whether it’s literature or film or scuba diving. You reflect what you see and what you experience. And if you’re just — I hate to use the word narrow-minded — but if you’re focused on one genre or one perspective, you’re gonna reflect that. For us, we were always the oddball band in the ’80s, playing around the Bay Area. We were very fortunate. This guy, Michael Bailey, who for years has run the Fillmore, used to run a little independent club called Berkeley Square, where we recorded our first record. He used to believe in us and book us all the time. He didn’t know who to put us with. We’ve opened for the Swans and the Pop-O-Pies and nobody knew what to do with us. We were this odd band around Berkeley, and then Fishbone started showing up. And the Chili Peppers. And we started having bands that we could play with. And then Faith No More. We’ve always been this sort of cross-pollination of things. And then, as Primus was kind of falling apart in the end of the ’90s, that whole thing with Oysterhead came about. Next thing you know, this whole jam world opened up to me. I was like, “Holy shit! I like this, this is a comfortable shoe.” So, I started Frog Brigade and started doing all these things. And then, obviously, working with all these different artists. … I just like going where the fun is.
You sat in with Phish in Vegas in 1996. You did the Phish original “Harpua,” then you did “Wildwood Weed,” and there were multiple Elvis impersonators onstage. How did that come about? You already said things were a blur sometimes…
I remember that one! They had tigers backstage that they were gonna bring out. I don’t know if they ever did. I knew those guys [in Phish]. We had a mutual friend and we had met somewhere. We hung out. Ler and [Phish drummer Jon] Fishman were talking Zappa. I just kind of kept in touch with [Phish guitarist] Trey [Anastasio] a bit, and my band Sausage opened for Phish down at Laguna Seca years ago. And they invited us to this Vegas show. I had seen ’em at the Warfield, and I had no clue that they were even slightly big. So, we go down and played the Aladdin, and there’s this whole crazy scene. I was like, “What the hell?” Trey says, “Can you sit in on this song?” It goes humma-humma whatever, I don’t know the song. I still don’t know the song. He goes, “You gotta chant this thing. You can’t just chant ‘blah blah blah blah.’” I was like, “I’m never gonna remember that. I smoke a lot of weed. There’s no way I’m gonna remember that. Let me just do my thing. I’ll do ‘Wildwood Weed.’” And he’s like, “OK.” So, I just started doing “Wildwood Weed” because I remember it as a kid. And I remember after the show Page [McConnell, Phish’s keyboardist], came up to me and said, “Wow, that really went on for a long time. I wasn’t expecting that.” But we had a blast. That was a great weekend.
What kind of plans do you have for the South Park 25th anniversary show with Ween at Red Rocks?
These are all surprise things, so I can’t speak of it. It’s gonna be over-the-top, I think.
You’ve got a new three-song EP coming out that includes a 13-minute song, “Conspiranoia.” Reportedly, your son said the lyrics were a little preachy and you did some revisions. What do you want listeners to get out of the song?
The whole notion was: “We want to get in the studio.” We just built this new studio. We’re having fun with it. I said, “We don’t want to do a whole album. We don’t have time. No one wants us to throw a whole new album on them at the show.” You know, when you go see a band, you want to maybe hear one or two new songs, but you don’t want to hear a fuckin’ album’s worth. You want to hear the old-timey ones plus we’re playing the Rush stuff. So, I said, “Let’s do one big-ass song.” So, I wrote “Conspiranoia” and we recorded it, and it’s 13 minutes long. There’s a single, but we need a B-side. It’s 13 minutes long, so we need two B-sides ’cause that’s a lot of plastic. So, we recorded “Conspiranoia,” and then we recorded “Follows The Fool.” And then I said, “Hey, Ler [LaLonde], you got anything?” And he’s like, “Yeah,” and he played this riff and we jammed it, and it was awesome. It might be the best of the three. And it’s called “Erring on the Side of Caution.” The name of the EP is Conspiranoid, and it’s reflective of the times. But my son is doing the Primus documentary right now, Jason Momoa is producing, Jimmy Hayward is producing, and my son is directing it. He’s gone through 700-and-some-odd videotapes that we’ve collected over the years and digitized them. He’s down in LA interviewing all these different people. He’s been a good sounding board for me of late. He’s just a good creative guy. So, I played him the song and he’s like, “You know, Dad, the one thing I’ve learned doing this documentary about you guys is that Primus has this world. You guys have created this world that people identify with, with all these different characters. And I’m listening to the song and it kinda sounds like you’re just preaching a bit, and there’s none of these characters that you’re so well-known for.” I was like “OK,” and I went back and re-wrote the lyrics from the perspective of characters.
Kids are like that. They’re not going to be impressed by your accomplishments.
My kids are more than happy to tell the emperor he has no clothes on.
$49-$300, 8 p.m., Saturday, April 16, Majestic Theatre, 224 E. Houston St., (210) 226-5700, majesticempire.com.
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