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What's more frightening? Playing drums in a three-piece band in front of 60,000 people? Or singing onstage for the first time at a small club filled with friends, strangers and the occasional 300-pound go-go dancer?
It's an easy question for Tim Alexander.
"Singing," he says with little hesitation. Alexander is a onetime Phoenix musician who went on to play drums for Primus during that Bay Area band's glory days. He left Primus a year ago and formed a new group, Laundry, which performs at the Electric Ballroom and the Big Fish Pub this weekend.
With Primus, Alexander felt the thrill of thumping tom-toms on a stadium tour opening for U2's Zoo TV spectacle. With Laundry, the self-described "quiet guy" almost lost his lunch at the mere thought of singing in public.
"Three days before that first Laundry show, I was in the bathroom going, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe this is going to happen,'" Alexander says from his home in Berkeley, California. He says the show, at a club called the Covered Wagon Saloon, was memorable in a variety of ways. "This place has what they call Stinky's Peep Show on Thursday nights. It's the night of the 'Large and Lovely Go-Go Dancers.' These big women, they're all over the place, dancing on the bar, on pool tables."
The bonus-size dancers were disconcerting, but Alexander was even more squeamish about warbling in front of friends and fellow musicians in the audience, specifically his girlfriend, who sings in a couple of Bay Area bands.
"Oh, man, when you open your mouth, you're exposing everything," Alexander says. "To believe it's okay to say what you have to say--that's the hardest part. You can run so many things in your head, worrying about what people think, worrying if it's silly or not. But I just had to do it."
That debut singing performance was last month. Since then, Alexander's had a few more opportunities to hone his vocal skills and calm his nerves. He figures he's passed the audition to sing in his own band.
"I want the attention," he says with a slight laugh, as if surprised to hear himself voicing the words. "I think now I feel important. It's not like it used to be, just playing the beats. I get to sing about what I want to sing about, say what I want to say and have it feel the way I want it to feel."
Alexander's odyssey toward self-expression began close to 15 years ago. The Camelback High graduate couldn't wait to leave school, yet soon found himself "not happy with life," bumming around town in search of the odd job and random paycheck. His mother, having survived her son's passion for playing drums, finally suggested he look in the Yellow Pages to see if any studios needed musicians. Alexander remembers laughing at mom's advice, but he hooked on part-time at a local recording house after wowing the staff with a percussive rendition from Rush, his favorite band at the time.
Alexander soon heard that an act called Major Lingo was looking for a drummer. Major Lingo was based in the artsy northern Arizona ghost town of Jerome, which posed a problem for Alexander, who at the time had to hitch a ride just to cross the street. He put his drums in some pillowcases and cardboard boxes, took a Greyhound bus to Flagstaff and got his girlfriend's father up there to drive him back down to Major Lingo's Mingus Mountain headquarters. Alexander wound up playing with the freeform, hippy-dippy band for the next five years. He left after Lingo, having conquered a niche in Arizona, braved and failed a relocation to the Bay Area.
"We moved up here and things were kind of rough," he says, explaining that a lack of both funds and gigs took a toll. Alexander eventually found a job at a cafe, and while there a co-worker brought in a demo tape from a friend. The tape was by a band called Primus, which happened to be looking for a drummer. Alexander joined Primus just as his Major Lingo mates decided to pack it in and return to Arizona. Alexander was left with a decision. Stick with Primus, which was then a struggling local band, or go back with Major Lingo, a popular Arizona act returning to its home turf.
He stayed in Berkeley.
"It just seemed like Lingo was going back to something we'd already done," he says. "But it was scary losing that security Lingo had in Arizona. At the time, I was almost homeless. I was living in an apartment up here that didn't have any utilities, no hot water, nothing. The streetlight was all I had to light up the room."
But slowly, steadily, Primus caught on. The band played one of the first Lollapalooza tours, which, according to Alexander, was a big boost. But he noticed that other acts on that edition of the tour--Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains--were all working on platinum-selling albums, something Primus still hadn't quite accomplished.
"We had a gold record, and it didn't really want to go much further than that," he says. "It was kind of like Major Lingo. We had our little thing, and it wasn't going to go beyond that."
Primus did go beyond Lollapalooza in terms of participating in bombastic tours, to wit, the band's opening slot on the Zoo TV extravaganza.
"It was crazy," Alexander says. "I mean, U2's as big as it gets. But I kind of thought to myself, 'Is this something I want?' I think it's neat to play in front of that many people. It's kind of the mountain peak. But it made me think about Primus' future. Are we going to be this weird band the rest of our lives? Are we ever going to grow and make it a big thing like this?"
The questions were later compounded by other concerns. Like by the end of the Tales From the Punchbowl tour, Alexander and Primus leader Les Claypool were actively avoiding each other.
"There was always this tension inside the band," Alexander says. "Les and Larry [Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde] were friends, they hung out all the time, and I was always on my own. I've always been like that. So I felt like just the drummer, you know."
Alexander quickly emphasizes that he and Claypool collaborated on the band's music, something he feels compelled to bring up in light of recent stories in which Claypool suggests Alexander contributed little to the Primus oeuvre.
"That's just not true," Alexander says. "Larry and Les were with each other so much they apparently now consider hanging around together as the creative process. But Les and I did the music. The guitar and vocals would usually get added on last."
Alexander says he knew the time had come for a change when Primus played a few dates in Alaska last summer and, after returning home, he realized he and Claypool hadn't exchanged a single word the entire trip.
"It wasn't really nasty," he says of the split. "I just wasn't happy. It was like, 'Man, we can't do this anymore.' It was horrible."
Alexander adds that along with the personality problems, he was getting impatient with the band's increasing image as a novelty act.
"I just wasn't happy playing that music anymore. It wasn't moving me. I was a little less interested in songs about made-up characters and the 'Wynona's Big Brown Beaver' kind of stuff. The comic thing was getting a little old. Don't get me wrong, I love comedy, but in music, I don't know, you've got to feel it, and I just wasn't feeling it."
With Laundry, Alexander gets to feel his own songs with a band (Tom Butler on guitar, Ian Variele on Chapman Stick) that dabbles Primuslike with odd time signatures and inventive sounds, but does so without hiding behind a bunch of yuks. And Alexander gets to perform his songs without hiding behind his cymbals. It's a welcome change for the newfound singing drummer.
"When I'm just playing drums, I'm not really too involved," he says. "It comes pretty easy for me. But now, singing and playing at the same time, I'm a hundred percent in concentration. I've never felt like that about playing. Now I'm diving in deep, I'm submerged into what I'm doing.
"It's all been a test," he continues. "Writing songs and recording them for a demo is easy. But when you're actually playing the drums and singing and doing it live, you wonder if it's gonna work. Are people going to get bored not having a singer running around? It's a battle you either win or lose.
"We've played some shows and they've gone well. So we've won. We know now this is a real band. We're going to tour and record, the whole thing. We're going to pursue it."
Laundry is scheduled to perform on Saturday, September 13, at the Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Fred Green, M.I.R.V., Sourpuss, Chaos Theory, Last Supper, Bionic Jive, and Hot Turkey Brown (showtime is 7:30 p.m.); and at Big Fish Pub in Tempe on Sunday, September 14, with the Brides (call for showtime).