Cheese Wizards

Primus scrape the mold off their sabbatical with a retrospective DVD, new songs and a tour celebrating their cheesiest album

No doubt you've gotten on with your life since 1991, but we here at the Muso Band Institute have been torturing ourselves for more than a decade with one persistent, nagging question -- "Is Primus a muso band?"

Year after excruciating year of listening to slap happy bassists thwack a fretless in attempts to emulate Les Claypool's six-string bass sound, we've concluded that Primus are not primo muso. Here's why:

A) Unlike most muso bands, whose core audience is comprised of gearheads who would rather see a rack of digital effects than two gigantic, succulent mammories up close, Primus' audience actually includes chicks, who dig Primus' willingness to reinvent their image throughout their whole videography and in turn are more than willing to shake hands with beef.

Left, bum-bum-bum-bum, right!: Primus resurrects Sailing the Seas of Cheese.
Left, bum-bum-bum-bum, right!: Primus resurrects Sailing the Seas of Cheese.

B) Muso bands' idea of humor usually consists of cramming three to seven time signature changes into one eight bar measure. Primus' songs are genuinely funny, as anyone who's ever read the lyrics to "Is It Luck?" can attest.

C) Muso bands have no memorable hooks because they're too busy fusing jazz somewhere it doesn't belong. Well, Claypool also has his jazz demons but has anyone who has claimed Stanley Clarke as a primary influence ever concocted a song as persistently catchy and unjazzy as "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver?"

Since 1999, the last time the universe heard from Primus, Claypool has kept busy with side bands that would make any musician drool, like Oysterhead, which paired him with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and former Police trapsman Stewart Copeland; and Live Frogs, which reunited the original 1986 Primus lineup. Those projects left fans to wonder whether Primus would ever come off the "indefinite hiatus" list.

"Working that closely with people for any length of time, things become abrasive," admits Claypool. "We really needed time away. But as time passed, I started longing to do those songs again. I really enjoy that stuff."

Fueling the nostalgia was a return to the second Primus lineup of drummer Tim Alexander and guitarist Larry LaLonde, not heard together since 1995's Tales from the Punch Bowl. "We had been talking about doing some sort of retrospective DVD with the notion that we weren't going to be playing together. Then as we put together material, we got nostalgic and next thing you know we're playing together. We've sort of been just rolling along since summer."

The resulting DVD and EP, Animals Shouldn't Try to Act Like People, compiles all 13 of the band's eye-arresting videos (including the Claypool /Claymation collaboration on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia") with hours of extra behind-the-scenes and live footage. It also features five new songs, including "Pilcher's Squad," about the notorious police sergeant who busted Beatles John and George for possessing marijuana he just happened to pull out of his pocket. Unfortunately, there are no videos for these -- now here's where you insert your sighs and remember the golden age of video.

"I have friends who are video directors and a lot of them are out of work right now. The video market and even a lot of the commercial market with the dot com just went away," Claypool laments. "Primus never was a Top 40 band but when I would direct these things, I would find a way to stretch the budget."

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in this reunion is the band's decision to play two sets, the first being a selection of highlights from their vast repertoire and the second a performance of 1991's undying oddity Sailing the Seas of Cheese in its entirety, start to finish. For Claypool, whose Live Frogs played Pink Floyd's Animals in running order for its second set, it seemed inevitable that he'd get around to giving his own band the sequential treatment.

"I'm a big fan of records like The Wall," he enthuses. "Things like that where it's like watching a film. I don't put Animals on and listen to part of it, I have to sit down and listen from beginning to end.

"There's no real definitive concept, just an ongoing thread behind Sailing the Seas, just a sort of musical theme that runs through and gives it its continuity," Claypool continues. "The whole notion behind Sailing was that this was our first major label release. We were always an independent band, kind of a cult band, and all of a sudden we were going to be marketed alongside the Bon Jovis the Gerardos of the world. And so to us, we were going to sail the seas of cheese. That's what that means."

Claypool recites the title track's lyric as evidence: "When the cold wind of conformity is nipping at your nose /When some trendy new atrocity has brought you to your knees Come with us, we'll sail the Seas of Cheese.'"

Amazingly, "the cold wind of conformity" left the band alone to make what stands today as a very accessible yet incredibly quirky album, populated by offbeat character studies like "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Tommy the Cat," with its awkward mantra of "Say baby, do you want to lay down by my side" that sounds as if a Mormon is calling a phone sex line for the first time. "Tommy the Cat" was offhandedly based on someone Claypool was in a band with who fancied himself as something of a chick magnet. Nabbing boho troubador Tom Waits to recite why a woman is like a hot biscuit was the first visible benefit of being on a major label.

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