Primus were one of those bands that even in the throes of my relentless fandom in the early 90s I still wasn’t sure what it was that I loved about them. I seem to have that problem with music that comes across both funny and prodigiously. Primus did both in spades.
Les Claypool played the bass as if it was an animated object that hung around his neck. It bent and slapped like it was made of rubber and psilocybin nightmares. His voice wasn’t singing more than it was yelling stories like a carnival barker in various states of slackjaw hillbilly and grizzled longshoremen. Larry LaLonde was rumored to have been a former student of guitar wizard Joe Satriani, but I heard no evidence of that. His playing on albums like Frizzle Fry, Sailing The Seas of Cheese, Pork Soda, and Tales From The Punch Bowl sounded like chicken scratch and a pained squelch. Tim “Herb” Alexander was the only guy in the band that it was apparent he was a rock and roll guy. He played like Neal Peart and looked like a welder. He threw fills in that could’ve come off of “YYZ”, but they somehow fit perfectly with what these two strange, lanky dudes were playing.
I loved Primus into the mid-90s, as in I bought their albums up until Antipop in 1999. The only other person that loved them as much as me was my older brother. He actually got me into Primus. I remember him coming home from a weekend in Cincinnati, Ohio with a lady friend and he returned with a Sailing The Seas of Cheese t-shirt and a copy of Suck On This on CD. What were these things? Who were these guys? Why did I like this weird band so much? All three times I saw Primus live was with my brother(along with my wife, then my girlfriend.) First time was 1993 in Grand Rapids, MI at a little dumpy theater called Club Eastbrook. The Melvins opened for them and it was mind-blowing. They were touring for Pork Soda and that album played heavily into their set. Later on that year we saw them again at the World Music Amphitheater in Chicago on the Lollapalooza tour. They were great(as were Dino Jr, Fishbone, and Alice In Chains), but I found out early festivals aren’t my bag(neither is an afternoon in 90 degree heat with no SPF 30.) The last time we saw them together was 1994 in Peoria, IL at some convention center. This time they were the opening band, opening for Rush. Holy crap, that was an amazing night of music. If I’m not mistaken Primus even went into King Crimson’s “Thela Hun Ginsheet” at one point. I’d just started getting into 80s Crimson so I was pretty blown away.
I continued to dig Primus and Les and by Tales From The Punch Bowl I’d started to hear what I hadn’t been hearing before in Les and Ler’s playing: that they were fucking amazing players. Les was obvious from the start, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the guy. Ler was a little harder to crack. Once I’d gotten into Crimson I could here where LaLonde was coming from. He had a real Fripp vibe to his playing. And “Winona’s Big Brown Beaver” had some pretty killer “chickin’ pickin'” going on which showed a whole new side to the guy’s ability. But after The Brown Album and the disappointing Antipop I kind of lost track of the band. Les continued to put records out under his own name, as well as side projects like Oysterhead(with Stewart Copeland), The Les Claypool Frog Brigade, Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel, and even played on Adrian Belew’s Side One LP, but I just didn’t really keep up. Still dug the older albums, but my brain had remolded and had been rewired to go into different musical proclivities.
Fast forward to December of 2014. My older brother stops by to wish me a happy birthday and hands me a bag. I recognize the bag, as it’s a Karma Records bag. I pull a record out of the bag and it’s Primus’ Primus & The Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble. I hadn’t heard a new Primus album in close to 15 years. Turns out my brother and sister-in-law caught Primus on the Chocolate Factory tour twice that year. He knew I hadn’t heard it yet so he wanted to spread the Primus love my way. After we had a beer my big bro was on his way home and I put the record on. They were still the Primus I’d always known but there was something special about this record. This record I realized that all those years of cartoonish records, weird characters, and rubbery musical escapades were from a real honest place in Les Claypool. In an interview Claypool had said that he was in the 3rd grade when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder came out. He said he obsessed over that movie until Jaws came out a few years later. Les loved the cartoonish and absurd. He loved oddball characters and storytelling. It’s what he’d been doing since the beginning, but being able to take something that made such an impression on him when he was young and turn it into this musical piece was and is something to behold.
The next year for my birthday my big brother stopped by and handed me yet another Karma Records bag. Inside was Les Claypool’s solo album Of Whales and Woe. This one’s a real treat. Some seriously funky stuff going on within this 2006 LP. Probably the most straightforward grooves Claypool has put to tape. If it hadn’t been for my big brother re-opening my eyes to the wonder that is Primus I’d have never known.
More than Primus, all this is about brotherly love. Even given the fact that my brother and I are well into middle age and we live less than a block away from each other but rarely get together, we still go out of our way to dazzle each other on our birthdays. There were a couple Primus years, then in 2016 he gifted me Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe. Zappa was always a very interesting character, but not one I’d delved into(his autobiography, however, is pure gold.) Since my big bro gave me that record I’ve been delving pretty deep into Zappa. Hot Rats, Over-Nite Sensation, Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar, and Joe’s Garage are just a few I’ve dug into.
For my part, I make sure I get my brother a book of some interest every time his birthday rolls around. From biographies of Monty Python members to Henry Rollins poetry collections to Keith Richards and Bruce Campbell autobiographies, I’m always looking for something I know he doesn’t have and hopefully doesn’t even know they exist. A couple years ago there was a Frank Zappa doc I found that he dug. This year, I returned the Primus favor by grabbing him their newest, The Desaturating Seven as well as their 2011 comeback album Green Naugahyde on CD as my older sibling hasn’t fallen prey to vinyl like me. He was thrilled.
You know, I started writing this well before my birthday. Probably sometime before Thanksgiving. I wanted this to be a Primus piece, but I couldn’t seem to finish it. Something just felt off. Turns out, it was because it wasn’t meant to be a piece for Primus, but how Primus fit into the relationship I have with my older brother. Liking Primus doesn’t quite go deep enough. It’s about sharing a love for something with someone else you love. In this case, it’s my brother and I digging Primus together for the last 27 years. I don’t see him all that often, but when I do I cherish the ample laughs we have together. I’m sure we’ll share plenty of laughs in May as we’re heading down to Indianapolis together to see Dweezil Zappa at the Vogue Theater. It’s his “Choice Cuts” tour where he’s playing specific pieces from his dad’s discography. My brother and sister-in-law saw him up in Michigan last year and said it was an amazing show. Well I couldn’t pass up a chance to see Dweezil with my brother. I can’t wait.
Maybe we’ll listen to some Primus on the way down.