Step Inside the Dark World of Primus & the Chocolate Factory

Les Claypool's love of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has led him to this.
Les Claypool's love of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has led him to this.
Rick Levinson

Everyone loves chocolate--some more than others.

Les Claypool, the mad genius behind Primus has taken his love of chocolate and churned it into a new album, Primus and the Chocolate Factory. Inspired as a child by the Gene Wilder cinematic portrayal of Roald Dahl's book, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Claypool saved box tops for a chocolate bar-making kit, and then sold his own chocolate Wonka bars to his grammar school classmates. Years later, the dark concept of the film still lingered in Claypool's brain, luring the bassist ever closer to becoming the master of his own chocolate factory. Following his vision of the past, Claypool has recreated the movie soundtrack in that timeless, dark and wacky Primus manner.

"I'm sure there's folks out there that didn't appreciate it. That is the risk of taking on a sacred cow," he says. "The thing is it's not so much about telling the story of Wonka and Charlie and the chocolate factory as much as it is the perspective of a young kid, which was me, back in the early '70s, experiencing the world of Wonka."

A twisted experience, clearly.

Primus
Primus
Chapman Baehler

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Up on the Sun caught up with Claypool at his California home where he took some time to discuss the movies early influences, taking on sacred cows, and drummer Tim Alexander's reinvigorating return to the band.

Up on the Sun: Les, when you were a kid how were you inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

I saw the film when I was in grammar school. I remember being in the theater and watching during the opening credits as the chocolate comes down the conveyor belt, the magic of the foil and the mechanized elements of the chocolate factory. I saved the box tops from Captain Crunch [cereal] and got my Willie Wonka chocolate bar-making kit and peddled chocolate bars at school. I read the books and I was all about Wonka.

So, what inspired you to revisit Wonka and redo the soundtrack in your own vision, culminating in Primus & the Chocolate Factory?

Well, we've been working through the Primus cycle and I'd wanted to take on a sacred cow for awhile. I thought about doing it with my band and then [drummer Tim] Alexander came back to Primus. It seemed like the right time to think about it.

When did Tim come back and what was it about Tim coming back to the band that made this project doable?

Late last year. I think the fact that he came back to the band had really invigorated some interest in going forward with Primus. I was really ready to go off and do one of my other projects. Him coming back really reinvigorated that. I would have done something regardless, but him coming back made it a Primus project instead of a Claypool project. So the notion of combining the two projects became alluring.

The movie, for all it's fun and good feelings is rather a dark story masquerading as an "everyone lived happily ever after" tale. What made you feel this dark edge would be just right for Primus to latch on too?

Just the fact that it was such an influential part of my youth, it's good to reflect back on elements of your life that are positive, frivolous and carefree. It is a great piece of art that stands the test of time. My kids were into it. My nieces and nephews are into it. The songs are great. It just a great piece of art. Of course, Roald Dahl, if you read the books, they are even darker. I think it takes more of a realist approach too ... basically it takes on the deadly sins. Greed, sloth and gluttony. It's the iron fist in the velvet glove. It's Grimm's fairytales. There's a moral within an ominous cloak.

Any worry that people might take offense to you're remaking such a classic in this manner? You said you wanted to take on a sacred cow and it's, well sacred to a lot of people.

That's very true, and I'm sure to a lot of people it's not going to be their cup of tea. I think that's the line I've been riding with my career since the get-go. We took on Pink Floyd Animals with the Frog Brigade in early 2000 and I'm sure there's folks out there that didn't appreciate it. That is the risk of taking on a sacred cow and it's just the way it is. You can't really concern yourself too much with those things. We're paying homage to the original film and book. The thing is it's not so much about telling the story of Wonka and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as much as it is the perspective of a young kid, which was me, back in the early '70s experiencing the world of Wonka.

Was there anything that was a particular highlight for you in making this album?

We recorded it at my house. I have all this vintage gear and it actually flowed really smoothly; came together quite naturally. That was great. Nobody likes to struggle up the mountain. I can't think of anything that leaps out as being more pleasant as anything else. "The Wonderous Boat Ride" was very interesting because we just did it all in one take. Tim and I just layed it down, then Ler (guitarist Larry LaLonde) layed his part on with one take. Then we had the cellists come in and ran it one time, then ran it again and added the marimba. It was interesting. It was great response to what was going on; there was no forethought to it.

Your album cover credits the album to Primus and the Fungi Ensemble. Was the cello and marimba this ensemble?

It was. I used those guys on the last project when we went out and did the Fungi record, so they became the Fungi Ensemble.

Are you playing the entire Primus & the Chocolate Factory in concert?

We're playing an entire Primus set, bare bones like in the old days. Then the curtain opens and you're in the chocolate factory.

You've got lots of fun props?

(In mischievous voice) There's all kinds of eye candy to behold.

Primus is scheduled to play Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday, November 19.

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