Pieces fall together for Primus revival
To hear Larry “Ler” LaLonde, guitarist for the very alternative alternative-rock trio Primus, tell it, the making of the band’s upcoming eighth album, Green Naugahyde, was not just a breeze but a pleasure, too. Part of that may have had to do with the setting: bassist Les Claypool’s home studio, Rancho Relaxo, named for an episode of “The Simpsons.”
Nestled in Northern California wine country, the studio is just a short drive from own winery, headquartered in an old train caboose, where the colorful Claypool bottles his equally colorful Purple Pachyderm Russian River Pinot Noir and Pink Platypus Pinot Noir Rosé.
“It’s close enough to the winery where you can get yourself in trouble,” says LaLonde, who plays with with his band tonight at Minglewood Hall in the buildup to their appearance next month at Bonnaroo. “Wine may have crept into the recording process quite often.”
But more than the vino, LaLonde attributes Primus’ reported return to form — after a decade of false starts — to the more relaxed attitude accompanied by the return last year of early drummer Jay Lane.
“I think all the times we kinda, sorta tried to pull it back together, all the pieces didn’t come together enough to make it a full-time thing or want to get in the studio and make it work,” says LaLonde. “I think it took Jay coming back in the band to make it work.”
Claypool and guitarist Todd Huth started Primus in the Bay Area in 1984, going through several drummers before choosing Lane. With him, Primus honed their sound, a mix of Red Hot Chili Peppers punk-funk with Captain Beefheart strangeness and Frank Zappa’s wry humor. Though Lane was a perfect fit, Primus was still an unsigned band, and he left when there was a scheduling conflict with his other band, Freak Executives. Huth departed soon after.
Claypool, whose virtuosic and eclectic bass playing and humorous singing and songwriting were already the core of the group, moved on, recruiting LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander. It was this lineup that would establish Primus as one of the most original acts of the day, beginning with their 1990 debut studio LP, Frizzle Fry. It was followed by unlikely successes like 1991’s Sailing the Seas of Cheese, featuring the songs “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat,” and 1993’s Pork Soda, which contained the band’s highest-charting single to date, “My Name Is Mud.”
Alexander left the band in 1996 to be replaced by Bryan “Brain” Mantia, and the band released three more albums. But after 1999’s Antipop — a typically out-there effort that saw each track produced by a different friend of the band, including Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Tom Waits, and Matt Stone, the co-creator of “South Park” who had tapped the group to write the show’s theme song two years before — the band went on hiatus.
The break was short-lived. In 2003, Claypool reconvened Primus with LaLonde and Alexander. That year they recorded an EP and DVD and toured. They toured again the next year. And in 2006, they released a greatest-hits package, another DVD, and played some shows, but there was, LaLonde says, no real enthusiasm for any of it .
During this period, the never-shy Claypool, who was recently named one of Rolling Stone’s best bass players of all time, had plenty of side projects to keep him occupied. He released a solo album, formed the supergroup C2B3, and toured with his own Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Outside of music, he made a movie, the jam-band mockumentary “Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo,” wrote a Hunter S. Thompson-esque novel called “South of the Pumphouse,” and built his winery.
LaLonde, meanwhile, had relocated to Los Angeles, living a quiet life with his wife and doing session work for Tom Waits among others.
The two seemed content in their new lives when management approached them last year about playing some shows. Claypool then reached out to Lane, who had gone on to play with the Grateful Dead-derived bands Ratdog and Furthur, about reuniting. After a run of shows, the trio went into the studio last fall to record the first new Primus full-length record in more than 10 years. Green Naugahyde is due out in July.
Guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde, drummer Jay Lane and bassist/vocalist Les Claypool are Primus.